Today, let us take a some time to consider the idea of Christian Maturity and how it plays out in our discernment. For starters, I’d like to point out that discernment isn’t limited to quality assurance and quality control in theology, or a certain type of blogging that tells everyone that they are wrong. Discernment is both a gift of the Holy Spirit for the edification of the Church and a sign of maturity in a the believer who is walking according to the Spirit. We’ll start with the obvious topic of the Spiritual gift of discernment and work toward the individual responsibility of growing in maturity and how that is reflected in our discernment on a personal level.
Spiritual Gift for the Church
1 Corinthians 12:1-13 (ESV) | Spiritual Gifts
12 Now concerning spiritual gifts, brothers, I do not want you to be uninformed. 2 You know that when you were pagans you were led astray to mute idols, however you were led. 3 Therefore I want you to understand that no one speaking in the Spirit of God ever says “Jesus is accursed!” and no one can say “Jesus is Lord” except in the Holy Spirit. 4 Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; 5 and there are varieties of service, but the same Lord; 6 and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who empowers them all in everyone. 7 To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. 8 For to one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit, 9 to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, 10 to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another the ability to distinguish between spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues.11 All these are empowered by one and the same Spirit, who apportions to each one individually as he wills. 12 For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. 13 For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and all were made to drink of one Spirit.
When we consider discernment ministry for the common good, we are focused on the gift of discerning what is of the Spirit of Truth against the spirit of error, whose source might be either our fleshly sinfulness or unclean spirits of demons. There is no other option. Notice the focus in Paul’s writing, it isn’t to get smart on all of the spirits of error; rather, it is to anchor everything according to the Spirit of God. The better you know the genuine article, the easier it becomes to identify counterfeits. Not everyone who claims a gift of discernment actually bears it… just as not everyone who claims to preach the Word of the Lord actually does so. It is the Holy Spirit who gives the gifts as He wills. Similarly, I’ve met some who think (or maybe truly desire) they have the gift of hospitality… but end up making others uncomfortable in their attempts at serving in hospitality. It happens. We should all grow in hospitality in loving our neighbors, but not all of us are called to that specific ministry. Discernment ministry is the same way. We are called to be discerning believers, but not all of us should consider it our primary ministry to the Body of Christ. The call of discernment ministry is primarily to identify spirits of error, false doctrines, and doctrines of demons. It falls to Overseers, Elders, Pastors to exercise church discipline for those who reject rebuke, correction, reproof and who refuse to repent. The shepherd drives away the wolves to protect the sheep. The overseer is a steward under the Great Shepherd, Jesus Christ. We hope that our pastors are gifted in spiritual discernment, but that doesn’t mean the sheep cannot also be keenly aware of the wolves and alert the shepherd to their presence. The problem comes in when our immaturity and fleshliness leads us to separate wrongly… as we see Paul address next.
1 Corinthians 12:12-31 (ESV) | One Body with Many Members
12 For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. 13 For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and all were made to drink of one Spirit. 14 For the body does not consist of one member but of many. 15 If the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. 16 And if the ear should say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. 17 If the whole body were an eye, where would be the sense of hearing? If the whole body were an ear, where would be the sense of smell?18 But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. 19 If all were a single member, where would the body be? 20 As it is, there are many parts, yet one body.
21 The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.” 22 On the contrary, the parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, 23 and on those parts of the body that we think less honorable we bestow the greater honor, and our unpresentable parts are treated with greater modesty, 24 which our more presentable parts do not require. But God has so composed the body, giving greater honor to the part that lacked it, 25 that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another. 26 If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together.
27 Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it. 28 And God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracles, then gifts of healing, helping, administrating, and various kinds of tongues. 29 Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? 30 Do all possess gifts of healing? Do all speak with tongues? Do all interpret? 31 But earnestly desire the higher gifts. And I will show you a still more excellent way.
More excellent way that what? Discernment? No. Discernment is a Gift from God. Paul is about to go into a more excellent way of dealing with the other members of the Body of Christ than what was highlighted as wrong. Those of you who are familiar with 1 Cor 13 may know what is coming, but I want to park that train for a moment. We’ll get there, but let’s take a short detour and examine the concept of Spiritual Maturity… what does it look like to be a mature Christian? Before we get to that thought, let us take a quick peek at something Paul wrote to the Corinthians in ch 3.
1 Corinthians 3:1-3 (ESV) | Divisions in the Church
3 But I, brothers, could not address you as spiritual people, but as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ. 2 I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for it. And even now you are not yet ready, 3 for you are still of the flesh. For while there is jealousy and strife among you, are you not of the flesh and behaving only in a human way?
Ouch. He’s talking to Christians. They are still Christians… but they are immature, infants in Christ.
Walking in Spiritual Maturity
As individual believers, our biggest struggle isn’t against demons, it is against our own sinful flesh with its corrupted, self-seeking, desires. Paul exhorts us to die to our flesh, to that which is fleshly in us, so that we might live according to the Spirit. There is actually very little mention of the devil beyond resisting him… but we are routinely exhorted to flee lusts and the temptations of the flesh. The truth is that while we have been saved by grace through faith in Jesus Christ our Lord, our flesh remains and is sinful. The Holy Spirit does work in us, sanctifying us… but the biggest component of that sanctification is that we are literally being put to death. Should the Return of Jesus tarry, you and I will die. There is no way around that. Our fleshly bodies are condemned under sin.
The life of the believing Christian is caught in between sinner and saint, the already(forgiven) and the not yet(sanctified). That means that we live in such a way that our works of the flesh are always sinful, and we must, by faith, remain in humble submission before God in repentance. We sin. Our flesh craves it. There are many who preach advice on how to reduce sin in your life by “avoiding pitfalls” or “following key principles” or … but the danger in this is the implication that if you are “christian enough” you’ll eventually stop sinning and finally be free from sin. That’s a lie. Your flesh is corrupt to its core. Even if Jesus returns today, your current flesh will be done away with, and in Christ those who are of faith will be granted new bodies. It has to happen. Only then will you be truly sanctified in the flesh… when He has given you a new body.
Now, here is where we get to the point of Christian Maturity… your greatest good work performed for your neighbor while on this earth, is stained by the sin of your flesh. Praise be to our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, that our forgiveness, our adoption as sons and daughters of the Most High is in no way contingent upon the righteousness of our good works, but on His. So, when an opportunity to serve your neighbor arises, God is using you to bless your neighbor… but at the same time your flesh is involved so there will be sin at some level. Christian maturity is dying to the flesh to minimize the impact of your fleshliness on your neighbor, as well as learning to discern the good work from the sin of your neighbor and forgiving their sin as your sins are forgiven.
Galatians 5:13-25 (ESV) | Keep in Step with the Spirit
13 For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another. 14 For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”15 But if you bite and devour one another, watch out that you are not consumed by one another.
16 But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh.17 For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do. 18 But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law.19 Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, 20 idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, 21 envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.22 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law. 24 And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. 25 If we live by the Spirit, let us also keep in step with the Spirit.
This is the war that wages in our bodies while we walk as sojourners in this life. By faith we know that our home is not of this world, but until we are finally set free from these corrupted bodies of sin, we must daily contend with the flesh and its corruption. But Paul isn’t just directing this teaching to one group of believers. He isn’t just addressing “discernment bloggers” or “pastors”… he’s addressing the body of Christ, brothers and sisters in the household of faith. We often come to this passage for the rundown of the fruit of the Spirit and set that as some positive goal for “becoming a mature Christian” by working on the fruits. But I think that is missing the bigger part of this section… we need to discern the works of the flesh (within the church) and see them for what they are and crucify the flesh with its passions and desires through repentance. Notice the wording of keep in step with the Spirit. We stumble and fall in sin. Repentance and forgiveness is how we are to keep in step. You are not sinless. You sin. I sin. For us to keep in step with the Spirit, by faith we humbly ask forgiveness and repent from sin. Daily. It’s in the Lord’s prayer. And we forgive others. Daily. That’s also in the same prayer. Reflecting back to Paul’s rebuke to the immature Corinthians above, their conduct was fleshly, and were not yet ready for meat, so they had to continue feeding on milk.
A Call to Maturity
Recently, my wife and I threw a big party for my daughter. The whole day was dedicated to her, starting with having her grandparents in town to watch her in gymnastics and swim class, followed by costume party at the house with a huge bounce-house and actors pretending to be Disney characters who sang songs and played games with her and a bunch of her friends. There was a fire pit with s’mores afterwards… it was an awesome day. When it came bed time, I let my son lead the bedtime prayer because he volunteered first, and you’d have thought the entire day was ruined by my daughter’s response… oh the waterworks, fat bottom lip, and hurt feelings. My daughter just turned 4… and she was beyond tired. As a child, she lives emotionally in the moment. As an adult, I know that the entire day wasn’t wasted simply because she took offense at the end of the day for not being chosen to pray. She had a wonderful day. She’s 4. As she matures, I will expect more from her… I will expect her to weigh the events of the day against the single disappointment at the end… to consider how excited her brother was for her throughout the day that was planned for her, and not for him. But for now, she’s 4… and she was super tired and delirious.
Our culture isn’t fond of maturity. In every way it seems to insist on living the Peter Pan in Neverland fantasy where we never grow old, grown-ups are the enemy, and we can all fly and have fanciful adventures if only we hold onto our one happy thought. “Grow up” is hate speech and to uphold God’s Written Word as an objective standard is bigotry. And the church hasn’t done a good job of remaining set apart. The visible church in modern-times needs to grow up.
2 Timothy 4:1-4 (ESV) | Preach the Word
4 I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom: 2 preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching. 3 For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, 4 and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths.
Reprove and rebuke with complete patience and teaching. We are still both sinner and saint… even our pastors. Their good works will be tainted by their flesh. As they submit to the Spirit, so we must acknowledge the work of the Spirit in them and in His Word that they are preaching. Sure, we may cry like children and scream, and pitch a fit to punish our pastor for DARING to rebuke us in an imperfect manner, in what we deem to be less than patient teaching. Children live in that emotional space. Infants employ the same scream for every desire, and it falls to parents to discern the true need of the infant. However, as they grow and mature, we teach them to discern needs from desires and right from wrong. Paul is warning Timothy that the church will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths. He is charging Timothy to preach the Word, reprove, rebuke, and exhort. A mature Christian hears the Word of the Lord being preached and humbles himself in repentance to the Word… even when the preacher’s flesh causes an offense. It’s going to happen. We are sinful creatures saved by grace. Know that your pastor is held accountable to God at a higher standard than those who are not called to the teaching ministry. Communicate with your pastor, point out the offense or error in love, being ready to forgive him as your sins are being forgiven you by God.
More Excellent Way
1 Corinthians 13 (ESV) | The Way of Love
13 If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. 2 And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. 3 If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing.
4 Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant 5 or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; 6 it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. 7 Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
8 Love never ends. As for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away. 9 For we know in part and we prophesy in part, 10 but when the perfect comes, the partial will pass away.11 When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up childish ways.12 For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.
13 So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.
Don’t confuse Love with the selfish emotion your flesh conjures up in its sinful desires and passions. Love is a fruit of the Spirit of God.
Whether you are exercising biblical discernment in speaking/writing a word of rebuke do what you can to remain substantive, rooted and grounded in the Word of God, and filled with love. Do not let your fleshly tone or word-choice be a stumbling block to your brother. When not speaking, be ready to discern substantive rebuke and correction even when delivered in an offensive tone. Learn to address tone without using it to overturn a substantive rebuke. Do not let your childish offendedness become a stumbling block to your own repentance. We will spend the rest of our earthly days maturing until at last we are set free from these mortal bonds, and born again into the Promise of the Resurrection.
Hebrews 13:20-21 (ESV) 20 Now may the God of peace who brought again from the dead our Lord Jesus,the great shepherd of the sheep, by the blood of the eternal covenant, 21 equip you with everything good that you may do his will, working in us that which is pleasing in his sight, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory forever and ever. Amen.
In Christ Jesus,