Thursday, July 16, 2009

THE NEED FOR BIBLICAL DISCERNMENT IN PERILOUS TIMES
...by Pastor Lars Larson, PhD

The Present State of Evangelicalism
As was pointed out above, there is increasing alarm among a number of evangelical leaders about the current state of evangelicalism and the direction in which the movement is proceeding. In this section we wish to consider some of the forces which make the matter of discernment a pre-eminent concern.

We have been influenced by Society
Dockery, the first writer cited above, described postmodernism as it has emerged in secular society in order to awaken Christians of the difficult task which faces them to take the gospel to this kind of world. But he fails to point out that Christians themselves, being in the world, have bought into these ideas. In fact, evangelicalism has embraced this philosophy wholesale. There is a disinterest by most Christians, even an aversion by many, to think through matters of doctrine (teaching). Perhaps they make a little effort, struggle a bit, and then throw up their hands and respond, “it is irrelevant anyway, what is important is the heart.” Recently I received a letter from a lady and her husband with whom I had a discussion about the doctrines of grace when we were visiting in California. After I sent them some basic outline material and recommended some books which discussed the issues, here was her response: “Have attempted to wade through the material you sent, but it is all to confusing to my pea brain. We both just accept the gospel plain and simple, and will leave the intellectual stuff to you, Lars.” The problem is that the very things we were discussing concerned the nature and the content of the gospel. This husband and wife are dear friends, and they have been Christians faithfully serving for many years. But for many of those years they served in a church which had forsaken the gospel. Thankfully, they came out, but then they became a part of another church where they stayed for two years and suffered there because of the teaching. Again, they came out. They have since found a church where they are comfortable. But during this whole process they struggled with much difficulty to identify what was wrong with the churches to which they belonged. Had they done the work years ago struggling with the issues, which the Scriptures affirm we should do, they would have seen the issues much more clearly, and much sooner, moreover, they may have been able to assist others who were struggling along with them. The approach is typical of these days. You must not relegate your thinking to others. Why? Because very possibly they themselves are not thinking and they may be in error. You must learn to discern.

The beginnings of this trend date to the sixties. here is a description of evangelicals of that period:
A generation brought up on guitars, choruses, and home group discussions. Educated, as one of them put it to me, not to use words with precision because the image is dominant, not the word. Equipped not to handle doctrine but rather to 'share'. A compassionate, caring generation, suspicious of definition and labels, uneasy at, and sometimes incapable of, being asked to wrestle with sustained didactic exposition of theology. Excellent when it comes to providing religious music, drama, and art. Not so good when asked to preach and teach the Faith or to express it in writing.
Whenever we loose our ability to discern, when we become “uneasy at, and sometimes incapable of, being asked to wrestle” with issues of truth, we set ourselves up for a major fall. This mindset began in the world, and was carried over into the church. The results have been staggering. But since one aspect of discernment is recognizing error, few even realize a problem exists. And those who recognize a problem are considered alarmists, extremists, irrelevant, outdated, and out of touch.
We are all susceptible to being shaped by our environment. In fact, we will have our thinking formed by the world about us unless we take definite steps to prevent it from occurring. Paul wrote to the Christians at Rome, “Do not be conformed to this world” (Rom. 12:2). The verb is an imperative, a command. But it is important to note that it is written in the present tense. Paul does not warn against the commencing of action; rather, he forbids it’s continuing. Paraphrased, he says, “You are presently being conformed to this world, put a stop to it.” And how is that done? It is accomplished by “being transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what the will of God is.” Unless you make a definite, deliberate effort to stop the process already at work, you will be unable to know what is true or false, right or wrong, good or bad. You will “drift away”, a fearful condition of which the undiscerning babies in Hebrews were in danger. What is the preventive? “For this reason we must pay much closer attention to what we have heard (the teachings of the apostles) (Heb. 2:1).

We are presently drifting about because of “waves” and “winds” of error unless we have secured ourselves to our mooring in the Word of God. I see the same things Dockery set forth characterizing the postmodern mind, as now descriptive of contemporary evangelical Christians. Many today no longer see the Bible as a depository of absolute truth. Not that this would be overtly stated; rather, I am sure it would be denied! But when one examines the way the Bible is used, the conclusion may be drawn that it is no longer a source of absolute truth from which true, prescriptive statements may be discovered. Rather, the Bible is used as a foil by which people generate imagination and find expression for their own feelings, or for a source of personal consolation or feelings of well-being. The Bible is simply not used as a source book for truth; it is not used to that end by many, even most, Christians. We may demonstrate this by considering the way most Bible studies are conducted in these days. The intent and purpose is not to discern the truth of the message of the biblical passage itself. Examine most Bible study guides for small groups and see what kinds of questions are asked. The questions posed of the Scriptures are not: “What was the intent of the author?” “What was the setting and state of the audience to which it was written?” “What is the message that was conveyed through this passage and what normative lesson does it impose upon me?” Rather, the questions being asked are: “What does it mean to me?” and, “what does it mean to you?” And although the various meanings (or perhaps better described as “impressions”) of the various members of the group are perhaps incoherent, irrational, or even conflicting with what is said in the verse being discussed, it does not matter, all things may be regarded as true. There is no wrong. This is the epitome of the worldliness of the days in which we live.

What we have described here is common among Christians; in fact, I would say that it is now characteristic of evangelical Christianity. Moreover, it is among ourselves too, in our own church. I know, for example, that even though I am able to present a case from Scripture of a certain truth, and demonstrate that a text teaches something in a definite way, there are those in the congregation who will dismiss what I have said on the basis of the following “reasoning”: “Well, that may be true for him, but not for me.” Or, “it might have been true then, but things have changed.” Or, “he can’t be that dogmatic, no one can know, and he is rather arrogant to even suggest to us that he can know.” “I have my own understanding of what is true.” This is postmodern thinking. This is the spirit of the world in which we are all immersed, which has influenced us all to varying degrees.

But it gets worse.

Now we have movements within evangelicalism which advocate a complete setting aside of thinking rationally as the true means of coming to know and experience God. There are people who now claim that it is more spiritual to set aside the mind completely and thereby experience God directly with the heart. This is pure mysticism in Christian dress. A prime example of this type of thing is what characterizes the popular Toronto Blessing movement. Today we have many who clam to experience and know God apart from the teaching and preaching of the Word of God; in fact, they have disdain for preaching and teaching. They chaff at sitting and listening to biblical and doctrinal exposition. Although they may not say it is so, the study of the Scriptures to them is irrelevant and even deadening to true worship and true spiritual knowledge. Their claim is, “churches have too much head knowledge, what is needed is heart knowledge.” These people are easy prey for deceivers.

An excellent book is available which is a collection of case studies of persons who had been caught up into cult-like Christian churches. The book is titled Churches that Abuse, by Ronald Enroth. Over and over again, the same scenario is repeated of persons who were drawn into churches in which they were ravaged. One of the major causes of deviancy and unchecked error was the abandonment of the use of the Scriptures in exchange for ‘spiritual experience.’ People were first attracted by “the prospect of supernatural, extraordinary experiences” or the style of worship which were offered in these churches. Many of these people began attending church with little knowledge of the Scriptures. They had no frame of reference to discern. And because the churches did not use the Scriptures as the source of all authoritative revelation, there was never an objective rule employed by which the people could make spiritual assessments. And once Scripture, or objective analysis of Scripture is abandoned, there ceases to be a corrective to error. Subjectivism reigns. Instruction in doctrine is viewed as unspiritual and deadening to authentic spirituality and the work of the Spirit. What then occurs is that the leader(s) assumes the role of what the canon of Scripture is to be--the determiner of what was true and false, right and wrong, good and evil. “God’s will is something that they determine for you rather than something you individually seek to know.” There is a “subtle cutting off of any kind of critical thinking, any kind of analytical thinking”; “thinking accomplished nothing.” Slowly, teachings are introduced which contradict the Bible, but nobody recognizes them. What was described as having occurred in one church seemed typical: “the dramatic and ever-accelerating barrage of sensual and spiritual experience caused many people to have their discernment ability dulled to the point of no longer being shocked at anything. . . . Exposure to extremes of behavior and belief . . . had desensitized members to the point where conscience and morals were anesthetized.” One person remarked about her state while in the midst of one of these horrific church settings: “I was having lots of supernatural experiences; I assumed and was quite sure it was all of God.” The conclusion that is drawn by the author is the need for our people to be trained in the area of discernment. “One of the pressing needs of the Christian Church is to assist in the development of discernment skills among believers so that the likelihood of following an aberrant teacher or false doctrine is diminished.”

Unless Christians awaken to the situation which we face, and become a discerning people, we will subject ourselves increasingly to error and injury, trials and difficulties, deceivers and charlatans. We will be easily led about by unscrupulous men and unbiblical teaching, and the devil will devour us in droves. The way things appear to be moving, it is my opinion that unless God intervenes by bringing true biblical-based reform and revival there will emerge two distinct brands of evangelicalism: one large group of larger churches which shape their faith and practice by experience, and a smaller group of generally smaller churches which purpose to ground their faith and life on the historical faith as revealed in the Scriptures.

We have a desperate need for spiritual discernment. We must be able to stand back and assess things clearly, and then step forward and warn people by awakening them to what is occurring. But further, we must train ourselves and others to think and reason through matters so that we may all discern what is good, right, and true.

We have been influenced by our Theological Tradition
I have discovered that working through issues of which I am ignorant is not as difficult as studying matters of which I currently assume I understand. It is hard to learn; but it is harder to unlearn. It may be difficult to learn new things, but it is immensely difficult to correct currently held errant views if they are currently viewed by us as true. Herein lies a problem we all have of which we should all be aware: we have been influenced by what we have been taught, and not all that we have been taught has been true. We have all embraced a measure of teaching which is, unfortunately, not true to the Scriptures. And yet we tend to hold tenaciously our present understanding, often claiming to defend our views “biblically.” We are in need of discernment so that we might recognize and correct error that we currently believe is true. This is a very difficult task.

Shortly before the martyrdom of Paul, young Timothy received a letter from the apostle containing his final charge to his young friend:
I solemnly charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus . . . preach the Word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort, with great patience and instruction. For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but wanting to have their ears tickled, they will accumulate for themselves teachers in accordance with their own desires; and will turn away their ears from the truth, and will turn aside to myths. (2 Tim. 4:1-4)
Paul told Timothy that he would encounter resistance and opposition from virtually everyone he would meet. It seems clear that Paul is not speaking of unbelievers, but rather people who heard truth, sat under teachers, and would be exposed to the preaching of Timothy. Timothy could expect to find resistance in the churches of God to the truth of God. Church members would not want to hear God's Word; rather, they would desire to be reinforced in their currently held doctrines, and would refuse to change or even listen to Timothy's instruction. Timothy would need to be resolute in his duty and faithful to his charge to preach the Word because of the peoples' preference for “myths.”

This is such a strange phenomenon. Why is it that we would choose myths (i.e. false doctrine) over truth? It can not be because we love myths more than truth, for every true Christian has received a love for truth so as to be saved (2 Thess. 2:10). Rather, we tend to prefer myths to truths simply because we perceive myths to be truth, and truth to be myths. Or put another way, our beliefs are assumed to be biblical, therefore, we are prone to reject actual Bible teaching if it is in conflict with our beliefs.

We gather to ourselves teachers and preachers who agree with us; we want our “ears tickled”, that is, we desire that our beliefs be reinforced. In essence, our belief system subtly usurps the authority of the Bible. We filter all teaching through what we already assume to be true, and yet we would vehemently claim that the Bible is our sole authority. And so, we tend to buy books which reinforce our positions. Our favorite preachers are those which agree with us in doctrine. We choose churches based on whether or not the preacher preaches what we think is truth. We tend to reject those out of hand who may preach contrary to what we already hold to be true. Whether or not they have scriptural warrant for their teaching becomes irrelevant. As soon as we hear something different to what we are accustomed, we immediately reject the message, and frequently the messenger as well.

This is not to say that we evangelicals are an erroneous group which has no truth. We advocate strongly that the Bible is our authority. Yet not one of us has all of the truth; only the Bible is objective truth. Everyone of us possesses a degree of flawed understanding regarding what the Bible teaches. We must ask the Holy Spirit to instruct us through His Word to reveal our present error and replace it with truth.

In conclusion, we could cite other reasons for the need of discernment in these days, but I believe what has been said is sufficient. Ultimately it comes to this: today’s Christians, generally speaking, do not know how to distinguish truth from error, and worse, they do not seem to be concerned about the matter. As a result they are being ravaged by error and seem to have little hope of recovery. May the Lord help each of us become better discerners of truth, not only so that we might bring glory to God and perhaps spare ourselves some grief, but that we might be able to serve others by directing them in the will of God.

this has been an encore presentation

11 comments:

littlegal_66 said...

:thinking:

...and printing this off to take with me...late for church this morning...(should have known there'd be something extra- compelling here if I stopped by this morning). ;-)
I'll definitely comment more later.

Scruples said...

Good post Steve! I agree that we need great discernment in these days to separate truth from error. I'd like to ask you if there are areas in your thinking that were in error because of influence by society or theological tradition. How did you come to discern these errors, what have you learned and what can we learn from your discernment process? The reason I ask that question is that I noticed you using the word "we" so I assume that includes you.

donsands said...

This was an excellent post. Very helpful.

"Subjectivism reigns"

That's so right on in my sphere. I am swiming against a riptide of this mind set. And it sure is a strain on my spirit.

"we must train ourselves"

I truly need to heed these words of Pastor Larson.
Thanks Steve for this encouraging, and edifying message.

"rooted and built up in Him and established in the faith, as you have been taught" Col. 2:7

littlegal_66 said...

Okay. Here we go: I had considered Part 1 of this article thought- provoking, but Part 2 is really something. In fact, I think he's so on-target, I'll have to break my comments into two separate posts. I think Dr. Larson himself reflects an shining example of discernment for us, here.

"Educated, as one of them put it to me, not to use words with precision because the image is dominant, not the word. Excellent when it comes to providing religious music, drama, and art. Not so good when asked to preach and teach the Faith or to express it in writing."
Isn't this an evangelical variation of what Mr. Limbaugh terms "symbolism over substance?"

"But since one aspect of discernment is recognizing error, few even realize a problem exists."
That's heavy. Yes, this does present quite the paradox. It's the proverbial "Catch 22."

"Rather, the questions being asked are: 'What does it mean to me?' and, 'what does it mean to you?' And although the various meanings (or perhaps better described as 'impressions') of the various members of the group are perhaps incoherent, irrational, or even conflicting with what is said in the verse being discussed, it does not matter, all things may be regarded as true. There is no wrong."
Spot on, I think. Regrettably, it appears that we've resorted to "outcome-based Bible interpretation."

littlegal_66 said...

"The way things appear to be moving, it is my opinion that unless God intervenes by bringing true biblical-based reform and revival there will emerge two distinct brands of evangelicalism: one large group of larger churches which shape their faith and practice by experience, and a smaller group of generally smaller churches which purpose to ground their faith and life on the historical faith as revealed in the Scriptures."

I can picture this occuring; this possiblity has concerned me for some time, now. If God doesn't intervene, and it becomes an eventuality, by His grace I hope to be counted in the latter group of churches.

Man, Pastor Larson must be an unbelievable teacher....he's REALLY good! Very interesting that the first article he sent to you deals with this topic. Frankly, the relevance of this for me at this time is....well.....ironic. (At least the article has helped me to realize just how pandemic this is).

Bottom line, though: "We must ask the Holy Spirit to instruct us through His Word to reveal our present error and replace it with truth."
Amen, Dr.! And for me personally, I consistently strive to do so......
(but I'm certainly far from mastering it).

Hope to see more articles from Dr. Larson on the blog in the future.
(Great discovery, Campi).

donsands said...

littlegal,

Thanks for sharing. Your thoughts helped. Especially, it's a Catch 22. That really spoke to me.

4given said...

Hey Little gal... YOU GO GIRL! Our Lord was certainly glorified in your take on all this. DITTO on what you said, girlfriend.

Except when you said "I can picture this occuring."

It is occurring... on a magnified level it is occuring... right before our eyes it is occuring. (e.g. the EC ...and the Egalitarian deception... and I could go on because the experiential evangelical is taking on several forms.)

I was trying to be like a Puritan and make sure I said the same thing in every way possible to make sure it is clear.

littlegal_66 said...

^ ^ 4given said: ^ ^
"Ooops... It ocurred to me that occuring is actually spelled occurring."


Word to the wise: Never enter a spelling bee with a homeschooling mom. ;-) (Love ya, Leese). [I forgot to use the spell-check on my last post]). :-)

Paul Prins said...

I'm not even sure how I stumbled accross your blog but I want to thank you for your efforts and postings. In a couple days I'm coming off my first year in the missions field and reading posts like these by Dr. Larson have helped to break and humble my heart for the state of the church (and take some of my 'big head' with it). I am grateful and encourage you to keep writing and collecting pieces like this set. You've made a reader out of me.

Continue to let God bless you,
~paul

LivingDust said...

I concur and agree with Pastor Larson that Christian congregations, mine included, do not recognize the dire need to educate children and adults in the doctrines of the faith. Without a firm understanding of the doctrines of our faith, how can one "discern" error? The contemporary Christian church in America has been invaded by ravenous wolves, but most of the sheep are oblivious to their presence.

Jade said...

Wow! That's my pastor (Lars Larson)! Steve, I didn't know you knew my pastor... small world.

BTW you should come to our New England Reformation Fellowship conference in the last weekend of October, which my pastor runs. Ligon Duncan is speaking...

Preach it Pastor! :o)