How to Become Spiritually Discerning

Jacob Tanner

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Playing fast and loose with God’s Word is a dead man’s game. Only the one who is dead in their trespasses and sins (Eph 2:1), who is headed for destruction, would ever consider twisting the teachings of Scripture. The danger they impose upon the saints is immense and so the saints are encouraged to become discerning disciples who will not be deceived by their lies.

When learning to become discerning disciples who can spot the truth from the error, 1 John 4:1–6 offers some extraordinary help. In John’s day and our own, there were and are false prophets who claim to be sent by God, yet simultaneously deny Jesus and his gospel. Claiming to be sent by God, they do violence to the gospel through the satanic subtlety of ever so slightly twisting God’s Word. Like the serpent in the Garden of Eden, they cast doubt upon the Bible by asking, “Did God really say?” They may pick and choose and add what they want to construct a message more palatable—and lucrative—for the masses. Prosperity preachers are famous for this: They may speak of Jesus, and they may even mention sin, but when it comes to the gospel, they say nothing of how Jesus atoned for our sins upon the cross so that we would have forgiveness, reconciliation to God, and eternal life through faith in his name. No, for the prosperity preacher, Jesus came for two primary reasons: To make us healthy and wealthy. Troublingly, many believe these satanic subtleties. In fact, a perennial issue of the saints seems to be our gullibility to believe anyone that comes to us claiming to belong to Christ. So, what are we to do?

We must test spiritual claims with the Truth.

1 John 4:1: “Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world.” In this case, to “test” the spirits means to weigh whether the one speaking is speaking by the power of the Holy Spirit or by the power of antichrist. But there’s only one way to test what is being said, and that’s by the Word of God. It is only the one who knows God’s Word, who can handle it rightly (2 Tim 2:15), who can know the truth and thus test what others say.

Our knowledge of Scripture is essential because when it comes to those who claim to teach God’s Word, there are only two options: They are either filled with the Holy Spirit or the spirit of antichrist; they either speak the truth in love or they speak lies in hatred. Sometimes they start within the church and then go out into the world, or sometimes they start from outside the church and try to infiltrate it. In either scenario, we must mark and avoid them. They are of the spirit of antichrist because they both oppose Jesus and set themselves up in opposition against him. They are seeking converts of their own, and we must watch that we are not taken captive by every new doctrine that comes our way or blown about by every tiny wind that comes.

Charles Spurgeon once famously said that discernment is not just the ability to tell right from wrong, but the ability to tell right from almost right. Often, the problem with heresy is not that it is flat-out wrong, but that it often appears to get extraordinarily close to the truth before revealing its sinful hand. After all, even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light, and it should be no surprise when his followers do the same (2 Cor 11:13–15).

We must confess the Truth about Jesus.

1 John 4:2–3: “By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you heard was coming and now is in the world already.”

We must confess that Jesus came in the flesh, while we must mark and avoid those who deny this. This confession has two major elements: 1. Jesus existed with God before the incarnation because he is God. 2. Jesus came down from Heaven as a man in order to fulfill God’s Word and die upon the Cross for sinners. Effectively, this confession acknowledges that Jesus is God and that he became a man, and perfectly fulfilled God’s Law on our behalf, died upon the cross for our sins (thus exhausting God’s wrath against us), and rose again from the grave to bring us salvation by his grace.

Still, some can approve of orthodoxy verbally, yet inwardly be ravening wolves. So, a person’s actions must be weighed as well to see if their life is in accordance with this confession they appear to make. The one who makes such a confession ought to love Jesus and keep his commandments (John 14:15).

If they do not confess these simple truths about Jesus, or if their actions do not correspond to their confession, then they must be marked and avoided. They are driven by the spirit of antichrist which opposes Jesus and his Word.

We must overcome with the Truth.

1 John 4:4–5: “Little children, you are from God and have overcome them, for he who is in you is greater than he who is in the world. They are from the world; therefore they speak from the world, and the world listens to them.”

Pay close attention to the encouragement of this text. We are “little children” from God. As the courageous children of God, we must overcome the lies of the spirit of antichrist by the truth of the Bible according to the power of Holy Spirit at work within us. We must not fear (Rom 8:15) these false prophets driven by the spirit of antichrist; the Holy Spirit within us is far greater still! He will lead us into truth, teach us to discern truth from error, and even show us right from almost right. He will not abandon us to the schemes of the evil one.

Thus, being filled by the Holy Spirit, we are filled with none other than Christ Himself, the hope of Glory (Col 1:27). Being filled with Christ, we are filled with wisdom because, as Colossians 2:3 explains, in Christ are “hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.”

Through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, we are made wise overcomers who triumph over the spirit of the antichrist. Just as Jesus crushed Satan beneath his foot at the Cross, we can crush heresy. Indeed, God will not permit us to be led astray by deceitful false prophets.

We must follow only the Truth.

1 John 4:6: “We are from God. Whoever knows God listens to us; whoever is not from God does not listen to us. By this we know the Spirit of truth and the spirit of error.”

If we are saved, we must understand and proclaim God’s Word by the Holy Spirit, while flatly rejecting the lies of antichrist found in the world. We are from God, which means we have been born again by God’s sovereign grace: “It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh is no help at all. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life” (John 6:63).

God’s Word is Truth, and the Truth brings life. False prophets speak the lies of antichrist leading to death. And, since God’s truths are spiritually discerned, there’s some easy ways to know that we are hearing only from God’s Truth: The one who loves the Word belongs to Christ and hears only the truth (1 Cor 1:18), while the one who loves the World hates Christ and will not long endure the truth (1 Cor 2:14). When we test with the Truth, confess the Truth, overcome with the Truth, and follow only the Truth, we will not be taken captive by satanic subtleties. We will learn to become discerning disciples of Christ.

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Jacob Tanner

Pastor Christ Keystone Church

Jacob Tanner is pastor of Christ Keystone Church, a Reformed Baptist church plant in Central Pennsylvania. He lives with his wife and two sons and is the author of Union with Christ: The Joy of the Christian’s Assurance in the Doctrines of Grace.