This article is about the standards in spiritual discernment.

Source: The Messenger, 2008. 3 pages.

Testing All Things: The Standards

In the last issue of The Messenger, we learned about the need to “prove all things”(1 Thessalonians 5:21a). Without discernment we may neglect what is profitable and be hurt by what is damaging. In this article, we will examine the standard by which everything must be tested.


To properly assess something you must not only know its real nature but also what it ought to be. If you feel discomfort in your chest, you may go to the doctor. He may schedule a CAT-scan to have a picture of what your chest looks like inside. But if he gave that picture to you, you would still be unable to assess it, unless you knew what the picture of your insides ought to look like. The doctor must know what it ought to be and what it really is and compare the two together to determine whether it is right or not.

We see and hear many things from day to day. We observe things in our lives, know what we think, hear instruction from others, and see beliefs embodied in others. Yet, how will we discern what is right and wrong? We need to know the ideal standard to which all else must be compared.

Wrong Standards🔗

Many wrong standards exist for evaluating teachings and practices. Many make themselves the standard. Their mighty “I” attempts to be king and judge of all. Others can argue for something as long as they wish, but as long as “I don’t like it, I won’t do it or believe it.” “But I think,” “But I feel,” “But I like,” “But I just don’t see anything wrong with it” is the end of all discussion. Postmodernism fosters this subjectivistic mentality. However, if we succumb to this mindset, we have no objective standard for discerning the rightness of anything. We are left with our own follies.

The standard for others is how many people do or believe something. If only a few believe it, it is not likely true. If “everyone does it” in society or church, it must be acceptable. If a popular author or speaker says it, it must be true. If a book is a bestseller, it must have value. However, if this were the standard of truth, a handful of apostles would never have begun to preach the Word of God and call whole societies to true repentance. Luther would never have stood up to oppose the wrongs of Rome. Popularity is not the standard of truth.

For others, time is a standard. For some of these, if something was espoused in the 1600s, it must be infallible truth. For others, if a publication is more than 30 years old it is most likely out of date and if someone with a degree publishes something to day it must be worth following. However, neither antiquity nor modernity guarantees accuracy. Truth is eternal and the lie is as old as the fall.

The Only Standard🔗

In our Belgic Confession (Art. 7), we confess: “Neither do we consider of equal value any writing of men, however holy these men may have been, with those divine Scriptures, nor ought we to consider custom, or the great multitude, or antiquity…as of equal value with the truth of God, for the truth is above all; for all men are of themselves liars, and more vain than vanity itself.” In other words, Scripture is the ultimate standard. As Article 5 of the same creed confesses, “We receive all these books, and these only, as holy and canonical, for the regulation, foundation, and confirmation of our faith; believing without any doubt, all things contained in them.”

This standard is without error. The Psalmist confessed, “thy word is very pure” (Psalm 119:140) and elsewhere, “The law of the LORD is perfect…the testimony of the LORD is pure…the statutes of the LORD are right…the commandment of the LORD is pure” (Psalm 19:7-8). The Lord Jesus confessed, “Thy word is truth” (John 17:17). God’s Word can never deceive or mislead us.

This Word has authority over our entire being. God is the ultimate authority. As Isaiah 33:22 states, “the LORD is our judge, the LORD is our lawgiver, the LORD is our king.” As our Creator He has absolute authority over us and determines what we are to think, believe, and do. Because He created our entire being, His authority extends to our entire being. God exercises this authority through His Word. Because Scripture is the Word of the heavenly King, it is authoritative.

The one question about everything we do and think must be: does it agree or conflict with God’s infallible and authoritative Word? We confess, “We reject with all our hearts, whatsoever doth not agree with this infallible rule, which the apostles have taught us, saying, Try the spirits whether they are of God. Likewise, if there come any unto you, and bring not this doctrine, receive him not into your house” (Belgic Confession, Art. 7). God’s Word itself exhorts: “To the law and to the testimony: if they speak not according to this word, it is because there is no light in them” (Isaiah 8:20). Everything must be brought to the touchstone of the testimony of God.

Knowing the Standard🔗

People are trained to detect counterfeit money through a careful analysis of the features of genuine money. The more they have analyzed and studied all the features of a genuine $100 bank note, the better they will be able to discern which note is genuine and which is not. The best way to attain spiritual discernment is not to steep yourself in questionable materials but to study the true standard: the Word of God. The more we are grounded in the fundamental truths of Scripture, the more we will be kept from being carried about by every wind of doctrine (Ephesians 4:14).

Ryle therefore exhorts: “let me beseech and exhort you to arm yourself with a thorough knowledge of the written Word of God. Read your Bible regularly. Become familiar with your Bible. Prove all religious truth that is brought before you by the Bible. A little knowledge of the Bible will not suffice. Depend upon it, a man must know his Bible well, if he is to prove religious teachings by it.”

Spiritual discernment is always bound with a persistent diligence in the study of Scriptures. When romance novels are devoured and edifying books collect dust, when movies are watched and church services and classes are neglected, when work consumes our best hours and devotional time is reserved for the last sleepy moments of the day, spiritual discernment will never flourish. The church will drift away from the truth without even realizing it and perish in the endless oceans of error. We will be quick to claim that no text says we can’t do this or believe that, only because we have not understood the Word. We will develop our own ideas about the nature of spiritual life, which will become increasingly removed from the picture given in Scripture.

To prevent this from occurring, we must be people of the Word, who consistently gather around the faithfully preached Word. We must search the Scriptures personally and as families. We must meditate on the law of God day and night. The Bereans are commended that they “searched the scriptures daily, whether those things were so” (Acts 17:11).

Spiritual discernment is also bound with prayerful dependence on God in studying the Scriptures. Apart from God’s grace we remain spiritually blind and unable to see the truth of God’s Word. We also remain spiritually proud and unwilling to submit to the message of God’s Word, even when it is very clear. 2 Corinthians 2:14 states, “the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him: neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned.” We need the illuminating and humbling work of the Holy Spirit to discern what God’s Word reveals and how it applies to our lives and minds.

We must always approach God’s infallible Word with the prayer: “Lead me in thy truth, and teach me” (Psalm 25:5). The Spirit gives discernment by making sinners teachable and leading them into the truth. What reason we have to sing:

Teach me, O Lord, Thy way of truth,
And from it I will not depart;
That I may steadfastly obey,
Give me an understanding heart.Psalter 325:1

God’s Word is the light in the midst of the darkness and it is the truth in a world full of lies. What a gift God has given us! He has placed it in our hands so that we would know Him who is the truth, be set free by the truth, walk according to the truth, and sing:

Upon Thy precepts and Thy ways
My heart will meditate with awe;
Thy word shall be my chief delight,
And I will not forget Thy law.Psalter 322:4

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