Mac Brunson: Recovering Biblical Discernment

Mac BrunsonDr. Mac Brunson spoke at Southern Seminary Chapel on the need for discernment in the Christian life based on 1 Thessalonians 5:12-22. Brunson is the pastor of FBC Jacksonville. He has formerly been pastor of FBC Dallas and president of the SBC pastor’s conference. You can listen to the audio of his message here.

I am honored to be here. I am a graduate of Furman University but don’t hold that against me. We need to be reminded of the warning in the New Testament of what happens when we abandon godly discernment. Many New Testament passages warn us of the need to discern. There is a repeated warning about not abandoning godly discernment.

We have embraced what the early church was warned about—an abandonment of discernment. Most people disconnect morality from relationship with God because they neglect discernment. Today’s scripture passage is 1 Thessalonians 5:12-22.

In v. 12, Paul indicates a lack of respect for their leaders among the Thessalonians. Our culture has lost its respect for authority, even on the seminary campus. We need to respect our professors more. We need to respect our pastors more.

As we come to vv. 19-20, Paul gives two prohibitions—don’t quench the Spirit and don’t despise prophecy. The key command in this part of the text is found in v. 21 where Paul calls us to ‘test everything.’ Paul is calling us to have discernment in everything. We have stopped testing everything in the pulpit, and so they have stopped testing everything in the pews. I am worried about the denomination, the church and what will come in the next generation because we have forsaken discernment.

Why have we lost discernment? We are inherently a discerning people, but we forgot how. There are three reasons we have forgotten discernment:

First, we have forgotten discernment because we have depreciated doctrine for shallow emotionalism. Neglect of theology results in loss of discernment. In our culture, it is difficult to distinguish between the lost and believers. The church has blurred the lines and become like the world because we have depreciated doctrine.

Repeatedly we see in history a direct relationship between the neglect of the Word of God and the neglect of the doctrines of God. Our churches are embracing relativism and integrating it into their beliefs. So, most ethical decisions are based on feeling rather than doctrine.

Paul comments on this first reason for the neglect of discernment in 2 Timothy 4:1-4. In vv. 1-2, Paul tells Timothy not to preach what you feel but to preach the Word. Why? According to vv. 3-4, a time is coming (and may be here) when people will reject sound doctrine for emotional experience. When people reject God’s truth for their feelings, discernment will falter.

Second, we have forgotten discernment because we have abandoned the absolutes of God’s word for the approval of the world. 1 Thessalonians 5:21-22 basically shows us that we should hold on to the Word of God and hold off all forms of evil. But the church has turned loose of what we should be holding on to (the absolutes of God’s Word) and is holding on to what we should be turning loose (the approval of the world). We have abandoned the absolutes for the approval of the world.

When the Episcopal church ordained homosexual Gene Robinson in 2003, an Episcopal bishop defended the church’s decision on Fox News by saying that ‘we don’t adhere to ancient texts but do what we feel like we ought to do.’ They have abandoned the absolutes that are clear in scripture. Whether the culture embraces it, there are absolutes in the Word of God. When those absolutes are forsaken for the approval of the world, discernment is forgotten.

Third, we forget discernment when we become infatuated with influence and preoccupied with prestige. In our culture, we have confused image with substance. We have confused reputation with character. Many people in ministry are just looking for a crowd, but that was never the heartbeat of Jesus.

In 2 Timothy 4:9-10, we learn that the love of the present world caused Demas’ demise, and love of the present world has caused the demise of many others since then. An interesting possibility for the reason why Demas went to Thessalonica is because his spiritual façade would not be seen through there because the Thessalonian church had lost the ability to discern.

People can drift even under sound preaching if they are not discerning. Not even Jonathan Edwards was invulnerable when his congregation began to drift without discernment. He was fired from his church because the church had drifted and no longer embraced his (correct) view that people should make a profession of faith before partaking in the Lord’s supper. The key is for discernment to come alongside of the teaching of the Word if we are not to drift.


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