Discernment: Thinking God's Thoughts after Him

By Sinclair Ferguson

Someone I knew recently expressed an opinion that surprised and in some ways disappointed me. I said to myself, “I thought he would have more discernment than that.”

The experience caused me to reflect on the importance of discernment, and the lack of it in our world. People do not see issues clearly and are easily misled because they do not think biblically. But, sadly, one cannot help reflecting on how true that is of ourselves, in the church community too. 

Most readers of this article would want to distance themselves from what might be regarded as the lunatic fringe of contemporary Christianity. But there is more to discernment. True discernment means not only distinguishing the right from the wrong; it means distinguishing the primary from the secondary, the essential from the indifferent, the permanent from the transient, the good and the better from the best.

Thus discernment is like the physical senses; to some it is given as a special grace gift (1Cor. 12:10), but a measure of it is essential for us all, and must be constantly nourished. The Christian must take care to nourish his “sixth sense” of spiritual discernment. This is why the psalmist prays, “Teach me knowledge and good judgment” (Ps. 119:66).

But what is discernment? In Scripture (as Ps.119:66 indicates) it is the ability to make discriminating judgments, to distinguish between, and recognize the moral implications of, different situations and courses of action. It includes, apparently, the ability to “weigh up” and assess the moral and spiritual status of individuals, groups and even movements. Thus, while warning us against judgmentalism, Jesus urges us to be discerning and discriminating, lest we cast our pearls before pigs (Matt. 7:1, 6).

The most remarkable example of such discernment is described in John 2:24-25: “Jesus would not entrust himself to them . . . for he knew what was in a man.” This is discernment without judgmentalism. It involved our Lord’s knowledge of God’s Word (he, supremely had prayed, “Teach me . . . good judgment, for I believe in your commands” [Ps. 119:66]) and his observation of God’s ways with men. Doubtless his discernment grew as he himself experienced conflict with, and victory over, temptation and measured what is by what ought to be.

Christ’s discernment penetrates to the deepest reaches of the heart, but it is of the same type as the discernment the Christian is to develop, for the only discernment we possess is that which we receive in union with Christ, by the Spirit, through God’s Word.

Discernment is learning to “think God’s thoughts after him,” practically and spiritually; it means having a sense of how things look in God’s eyes, and seeing them in some measure “uncovered and laid bare.” 

How should this discernment affect the way we live? It acts as a means of protection, guarding us from being deceived spiritually. We are not blown away by the winds of teaching that make central an element of the gospel that is peripheral, or treat a particular application of Scripture as though it were Scripture’s central message.

Discernment also acts as an instrument of healing, when exercised in grace. I have known a small number of people whose ability to offer a diagnosis of the spiritual needs of others has been remarkable. They have diagnosed others’ spiritual condition better than the people themselves could ever do. When exercised in love, discernment can be the healing knife in spiritual surgery.

Again, discernment can function as the key to Christian freedom. The zealous but undiscerning Christian becomes enslaved—to others, to his own uneducated conscience, to an unbiblical pattern of life. From such bondage, growth in discernment sets us free, enabling us to distinguish practices that may be helpful in some circumstances from those that are mandated in all circumstances.

In a different way, true discernment enables the freed Christian to recognize that the exercise of freedom in any given respect is not essential to the enjoyment of it.

Finally, discernment serves as a catalyst to spiritual development: “The mocker seeds wisdom and finds none, but knowledge comes easily to the discerning” (Prov. 14:6). Why? Because the discerning Christian goes to the heart of the matter. He knows something about everything, namely that all things have their common fountain in God. Increase in knowledge therefore does not lead to increased frustration, but to a deeper recognition of the harmony of all God’s words and words.

How is such discernment to be obtained? We receive it as did Christ himself—by the anointing of the Spirit: through our understanding of God’s Word, by our experience of God’s grace and by the progressive unfolding to us of the true condition of our own hearts. That is why we should pray; “I am your servant, give me discernment” (Ps. 119:25).

Sinclair B. Ferguson is an associate professor of systematic theology at Westminster Theological Seminary. His many books include John Owen on the Christian Life.

This article was previously published in Eternity Magazine, September 1988.

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