How to Discern Biblical Truth
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Discernment is not knowing the difference between right and wrong. It is knowing the difference between right and almost right.— Charles H. Spurgeon
When it comes to discerning truth from error, sometimes it’s in plain sight. The error sticks out like the ugly duckling. But oftentimes false doctrine is hidden with biblical words, Christian clichés, half-truths, and near-truths. Spurgeon’s words sum up discernment succinctly; it’s usually knowing the difference between right and almost right. It’s like examining a well-done counterfeit painting—we need an expert, well-trained eye to see the tiny detail differences between the genuine and the fake.
But how is this eye for detail trained? How do we strengthen our discernment muscles? We begin in God’s word—studying it well and hiding it away in our hearts—and we turn to church history and qualified sources to help guide us.
Beginning in the Word
There are a group of people in the book of Acts who were deemed more noble than others because of their discernment skills. What made their discernment so noble?
The brothers immediately sent Paul and Silas away by night to Berea, and when they arrived they went into the Jewish synagogue. Now these Jews were more noble than those in Thessalonica; they received the word with all eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so. Many of them therefore believed, with not a few Greek women of high standing as well as men. (Acts 17:10-12; emphasis added)
To be like the Bereans is to examine and search the word of God for the truth. When we have the word hidden in our hearts, we won’t easily be satisfied with falsehood and contradictions. In order to be discerning, we need to know our Bibles.
As we come to Scripture to find answers, humility should be our posture; we don’t come to the Bible to be proven right, but to be shaped and taught by God. Start with one particular verse on the subject, study it in context, then turn to the cross-references (verses on the same topic) and repeat the process. This shouldn’t be to the neglect of the entire Bible either; topical studies are good, but we should also spend time considering what the whole of Scripture says. As we study the Bible—the whole Bible—we grow and begin to develop a systematic theology.
This isn’t a skill that’s developed quickly. As we spend more time in God’s word studying it, reading it, listening to it, and memorizing it, we fine-tune our discernment muscles. I’m impatient. I want the answer immediately, but this process has taught me to be okay staying in the unknown “in-between” stage as I study for an answer.
Consulting Church History and Qualified Sources
As we test what we are learning by Scripture, it’s important to consider the creeds and confessions of church history. Though they were written by men long ago (and not inspired by the Holy Spirit like the Bible), many of them come with proof texts for what they affirm and deny. They act as a summary of what Scripture says on important subjects and confirm what the church has affirmed for hundreds of years. Many of the creeds and confessions define orthodoxy (the true tenets of the Christian faith). If someone denies a doctrine that is clearly affirmed in Scripture as shown by these creeds and confessions, that should alarm us.
As the saying goes, history often repeats itself. Many (if not all) the false doctrines we face today have already appeared in years past, and the church has already proven them false by Scripture. This is where some of our confessions and creeds came from—a false doctrine was spreading like a disease, and church leaders and theologians came together to speak out and confirm what the Bible really says. This is how church history strengthens our discernment.
But great theologians and teachers don’t only exist in the past. Today we have many reliable and qualified teachers, writers, pastors, and theologians whom we can consult when we are unsure. We also need to learn in community. While it’s good to understand the Bible for ourselves, part of this comes from learning under qualified teachers who know the vital doctrines of the Christian faith and strive for truth.
What If I’m Led Astray? What If I Get It Wrong?
There can be a fear that comes with discernment—What if I’m led astray? What if I make a mistake? Our knowledge will always be incomplete on earth on certain things. We’re imperfect and we make mistakes. But what is necessary has been made plain in Scripture. As the Westminster Confession of Faith states,
All things in Scripture are not alike plain in themselves, nor alike clear unto all: yet those things which are necessary to be known, believed, and observed for salvation, are so clearly propounded, and opened in some place of Scripture or other, that not only the learned, but the unlearned, in a due use of the ordinary means, may attain unto a sufficient understanding of them. (WCF 1.7)
This is where the body of believers and especially our church leaders are necessary to keep us accountable—both those in our local churches and those long ago dead. When we start to say something that is out of line with the truth, they can point us back to Scripture.
But most importantly, above all this, it is Christ who holds us fast. It is God who will reveal the truth to us in his word and apply it by the Holy Spirit. Jesus is our Shepherd who sacrificed his life for us to save us from sin and its deception—and rose again to lead us to eternal rest in heaven. He will guard us from being led astray into grievous error. He will finish what he has started in us (Phil. 1:6). We can look to him as we discern and trust that he will persevere us.
Discernment Is Hard but Good
Teachers and preachers are gifted by God to shepherd and explain the difficult truths of the Bible. But they aren’t infallible or inerrant. Like the Bereans, we should eagerly receive God’s word and search the Scriptures to be sure their teachings align with it. This is why discerning is hard. No matter how great a teacher may be, they still make mistakes and still have an incomplete understanding of God—like we all do. We always need to be discerning, even with our favorite teachers and those who hold to the same beliefs as we do.
Discernment is more complicated than simply checking out the endorsements or letting someone decide for us who is good and who isn’t. By discerning, we have the opportunity to grow. We have the opportunity to become more rooted in what we believe. This is the kind of noble discernment the Bereans had, and it is the kind we should strive for as well.
Lara d’Entremont is a wife, mother, and biblical counselor-in-training. You can find more of her writing at laradentremont.com.
The Creedal Imperative by Carl R. Trueman