Test All Things
A column entitled, “Discerning the Spirits,” may cover any range of doctrines and practices. While analyzing particular issues is useful, stepping back and dealing with the basic principles of spiritual discernment is also important. We begin this general series with the need for the call of 1 Thessalonians 5:21a: “Prove all things.” Next time, D.V., we will deal with how to heed this call.
Imagine a world void of discernment. We would not distinguish between a bottle of soap, pesticide, or juice. We would drink the pesticide and wash dishes with the juice. Imagine a world without testing: Doctors would not test patients; hospitals would not examine the credentials of those who applied to practice medicine; universities would not test their students. Imagine a world without any standards: one druggist’s milligram another’s pound; one person’s water another’s acid. Without standards society could not function. How dangerous such a world would be
We need discernment, testing, and standards in daily life, but much more in spiritual life. If a lack of these is dangerous and even deadly for physical life, their lack is even more dangerous for spiritual life. If we fail to discern between the divine water of life and the poisoned drink of death, the consequences will be fatal. If we fail to test what is offered to us, we may be drinking poison instead of refreshing water. If we fail to test the use of correct standards, we may misevaluate what we are offered and receive as water when it is poison or refuse it as poison when it is water.
An Extensive Call
No wonder 1 Thessalonians 5:21 exhorts, “prove all things.” “Prove” here means to examine or test them in order to discern whether they are good or bad, pure or alloyed, sound or defective. This command extends to all the members of the church. As Ryle argues, “every individual Christian has a right to judge for himself by the Word of God, whether that which is put before him as religious truth, is God’s truth, or is not.” In fact, this is “absolutely needful for every Christian who loves his soul and would not be deceived.”1
This testing is to apply to “all things.” The previous verse exhorts, “Despise not prophesyings.” We are to humbly and eagerly listen to instruction. At the same time we are to test what “prophets” say. The focus of the “all things” is those things which relate to Christian faith and practice as it is taught and exemplified in others and ourselves. As Calvin notes in his commentary on this verse, this exhortation “does not by any means require that an audience should be given to false teachers, whose mouth he elsewhere teaches (Titus 1:11) must be stopped.” This text is not a license to explore every claim that exists and experience every activity that is practiced, but to subject everything that crosses our path to the test of God’s Word.
A Necessary Activity
We need this call to “prove all things” because we so easily neglect this activity. Some are filled with a prejudice that issues a condemning verdict before subjecting teachings or teachers to the trial. Others (or even the same people!) are like sponges that soak in good and bad with equal ease. They object to neither the sound preaching they hear on Sundays nor the unsound teaching they listen to during the week. Both extremes fail to prove all things and lack the discernment God calls for in this verse.
The activity of testing is necessary because none of us may pretend to “know it all.” When we confess we are sinners, we are confessing that we have wrong thoughts and practices and are prone to adopt them from others. We must be continually learning what God’s standard is and how to apply it to specific teachings and practices. Only then will our wrong ideas and lives be corrected and will we feed on wholesome and not harmful food.
Testing is also necessary because no human is infallible. We may highly respect certain elders, ministers, aged mothers in Israel, or conference speakers. But we may never give up our own responsibility of discernment and blindly trust their understanding of what is right and wrong. God holds each of us accountable. Paul commended the Bereans above the Thessalonians because the Bereans did not simply accept what Paul said on the basis of his authority but tested it by the Scriptures to discern “whether those things were so” (Acts 17:11). If the preaching of the apostle Paul, who wrote inspired letters, needed to be tested, how much more does the teaching of anyone living today?
As John Murray indicates, testing is required because error is not always readily apparent.2If you come across a rusted car in the back of someone’s field, you do not need to take it for a test drive. A quick glance is enough to show you it will not run. But if you see the shiny model of an older car parked on someone’s driveway, you will still want to try it out to find out how it runs. Concerning spiritual things, the error of atheism and other religions may be immediately apparent. However, other errors among those who claim to be or even are Christians may be much more concealed. Careful testing is required because error is deceitful.
Error never knocks on the front door of the church and introduces itself as “Mr. Error.” The devil is the great deceiver who hides his lies in partial truths. This began already in paradise, when he told Eve, “the day ye eat thereof, then your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil” (Genesis 3:5). God Himself acknowledged there was an element of truth in what Satan said, for God later says, “Behold, the man is become as one of us, to know good and evil” (Genesis 3:22). However, Satan twisted this truth, covered up other truths with his silence, and contradicted the truth that they would die.
Satan still does so through false teachers. The Lord Jesus warns, “Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves” (Matthew 7:15). Heresy always comes in truth’s clothing. As Peter wrote, false teachers shall come “among you, who privily shall bring in damnable heresies” (2 Peter 2:1).
If the devil himself quoted Scripture in his temptations of the Lord Jesus, we need not be surprised that “false prophets” also quote Scripture (Matthew 4:6). The fact that a speaker on the radio or the author of a Christian book or teacher at a Christian school quotes Scripture does not guarantee they are scriptural. Quotations of Scripture misunderstood and isolated from their immediate context and the whole thrust of Scripture can lead a person to perdition or at the least harm his spiritual life. The call is: “Test all things!”
Even the Godly Stray
Satan may also lead eminent people of God astray in specific areas. Peter confessed, “Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God.” The Lord Jesus pronounced him blessed and told him that “flesh and blood hath not revealed it unto thee, but my Father which is in heaven.” He even said, “Thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church.”
Yet, shortly after Peter rebuked the Lord Jesus and opposed the prophecy of His death, Jesus said to Peter, “Get thee behind me, Satan: thou art an offence unto me” (Matthew 16:16-18, 21-23). Later, Peter preached with much clarity, and yet the point came when he again erred by refraining from eating with the Gentiles. This led Paul to write: “when Peter was come to Antioch, I withstood him to the face, because he was to be blamed” (Galasians 2:11). Even Peter’s words and example needed to be tested.
Errors may be present in the least expected places. As the Puritan, William Sclater, remarks, “even the most holy and most upright in heart, are but in part enlightened; though it may be supposed they would not wittingly mislead us, yet through remains of ignorance, the mother of error, they may taint our judgments, and corrupt our minds from the simplicity of the Gospel.” 3A person may be sincere and even godly, and yet wrong and damaging on certain points.
A confusing plethora of ideas and opinions fill today’s Christianity. Through the modern means of communication and the profusion of publications, all these ideas are at our fingertips. In our interaction with others, the embodiments of many different opinions are before our eyes. Young and old can become very confused and have many questions.
Are we to throw up our hands in despair? Are we to be tossed with every wind of doctrine? Or shall we fold our hands before the God who commands, “Prove all things” and seek His grace to enable us to heed this command and discern what the true gospel of salvation is and what His true requirements for our lives are? The spiritual welfare of our souls, our families, and our congregations is at stake.