God's Word is clear that not everything that glitters is gold. In this uncompromising book, John MacArthur and the contributors lay a foundation for biblical discernment to assess several current Christian trends.
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About the Author
John MacArthuris thepastor-teacher of Grace Community Church in Sun Valley, California, where he has served since 1969. He is known around the world for his verse-by-verse expository preaching and his pulpit ministry via his daily radio program, Grace to You.He has also written or edited nearly four hundred books and study guides. MacArthur serves as the president of the Master's Seminary and Master's University. He and his wife, Patricia, live in Southern California and have four grown children.
Nathan Busenitz (PhD, The Master's Seminary) is assistant professor of theology at the Master's Seminary. He previously served on the pastoral staff of Grace Community Church in Sun Valley, California. He is the author of numerous books and a regular contributor to the blog Preacher & Preaching.
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ALL THAT GLITTERS ...: A CALL FOR BIBLICAL DISCERNMENT
This chapter lays the foundation for biblical discernment — a foundation that is of crucial importance, and yet often overlooked in our postmodern culture. Each subsequent chapter in this book builds on this foundation, applying the principles found here to a number of current Christian trends. In an age of open-mindedness, too many believers have forfeited biblical clarity and exchanged it for a life of confusion and compromise. They accept too much with too little discernment. But God's Word makes it clear that not everything that glitters is truegold; doctrinal error abounds at every turn, the temptation to embrace it is great, and the stakes involved are eternal. God calls us, as His people, to distinguish what's good from what's bad. And that's why we need biblical discernment.
It is a simple Greek word, only six letters long. But for a generation of treasure seekers in the late 1840s, it became a life slogan. Meaning "I have found it!" in English, the term purportedly comes from Archimedes, the Greek mathematician who cried out "Eureka! Eureka!" when he determined how much gold was in King Hiero's crown. Yet, for James Marshall (who discovered gold at Sutter's Mill in 1848) and many of his contemporaries, the term took on new meaning. For them, "eureka" meant instant riches, early retirement, and a life of carefree ease. It's no wonder California (the "Golden State") includes this term on its official seal, along with the picture of a zealous gold miner.
News of Marshall's discovery spread quickly throughout the nation. By 1850 over 75,000 hopefuls had traveled to California by land, and another 40,000 by sea. Whether by wagon or by boat, the journey was an arduous one, as adventurers left friends and family behind in search of vast fortunes. Even when they finally arrived in San Francisco, the closest goldfields were still 150 miles away. Undaunted nonetheless, many of the forty-niners set up mining camps and started to dig.
As they traveled out to their various destinations, prospectors quickly learned that not everything that looked like gold actually was. Riverbeds and rock quarries could be full of golden specks, and yet entirely worthless. This "fool's gold" was iron pyrite, and miners had to be able to distinguish it from the real thing. Their very livelihood depended on it.
Experienced miners could usually distinguish pyrite from gold simply by looking at it. But in some cases the distinction was not quite so clear. So they developed tests to discern what was genuine from what wasn't. One test involved biting the rock in question. Real gold is softer than the human tooth, while fool's gold is harder. A broken tooth meant that a prospector needed to keep digging. A second test involved scraping the rock on a piece of white stone, such as ceramic. True gold leaves a yellow streak, while the residue left by fool's gold is greenish-black. In either case, a miner relied on tests to authenticate his finds — both his fortune and his future depended on the results.
Doctrinally speaking, today's church is in a similar position to the California gold rushers of 1850. Spiritual riches are promised at every turn. New programs, new philosophies, new parachurch ministries — each glitters a little bit more than the last, promising better results and bigger returns. But, as was true in the mid-1800s, just because it glitters doesn't mean it's good. Christians need to be equally wary of "fool's gold." We must not accept new trends (or old traditions) without first testing them to see if they meet with God's approval. If they fail the test, we should discard them and warn others also. But if they pass the test, in keeping with the truth of God's Word, we can embrace and endorse them wholeheartedly.
California gold miners would only cry "Eureka!" when they found true gold. As Christians, we should be careful to do the same.
OUR NEED FOR DISCERNMENT
In considering nineteenth-century miners, we are reminded of the need to discriminate between truth and falsehood. In modern usage, the word discrimination carries powerful negative connotations. But the word itself is not negative. Discriminate simply means "to make a clear distinction." We used to call someone "a discriminating person" if he or she exercised keen judgment. "Discrimination" signified a positive ability to draw the line between good and evil, true and false, right and wrong. In the heyday of the American civil rights movement the word was widely applied to racial bigotry. And, indeed, people who make unfair distinctions between races are guilty of an evil form of discrimination.
Unfortunately, the word itself took on that negative connotation, and the sinister implication is often transferred to anyone who tries to discriminate in any way. To view homosexuality as immoral (1 Cor 6:9-10; 1 Tim 1:9-10) is condemned now by the politically correct as an unacceptable form of discrimination. To suggest that wives ought to submit to their own husbands (Eph 5:22; Col 3:18) is now classified as unfair discrimination. To suggest that children ought to obey their parents (Eph 6:1) is also labeled unjust discrimination by some. Anyone who "discriminates" in these ways risks becoming a target of lawsuits by the ACLU.
The idea of discrimination itself has fallen out of favor. We are not supposed to draw lines. We are not supposed to discriminate. That is the spirit of this age, and unfortunately, it has crept into the church.
If we are going to be discerning people, we must develop the skill of discriminating between truth and error, good and bad. The original languages of Scripture convey this very idea. The main Hebrew word for "discernment" is bin. The word and its variants are used hundreds of times in the Old Testament. It is often translated "discernment," "understanding," "skill," or "carefulness." But in the original language it conveys the same idea as our word discrimination. It entails the idea of making distinctions. Jay Adams points out that the word bin "is related to the noun bayin, which means 'interval' or 'space between,' and the preposition ben, 'between.' In essence it means to separate things from one another at their points of difference in order to distinguish them." Discernment, then, is a synonym for discrimination. In fact, the Greek verb translated "discern" in the New Testament is diakrin . It means, "to make a distinction" and is literally translated that way in Acts 15:9.
So discernment is the process of making careful distinctions in our thinking about truth. The discerning person is the one who draws a clear contrast between truth and error. Discernment is black-and-white thinking — the conscious refusal to color every issue in shades of gray. No one can be truly discerning without developing skill in separating divine truth from error.
Does Scripture tell us how to be discerning? It certainly does. Paul sums up the process in 1 Thessalonians 5:21-22: "test everything; hold fast what is good. Abstain from every form of evil." There, in three straightforward commands, he spells out the requirements of a discerning mind.
Let's quickly set the context for this passage. Starting with verse 16, Paul lists some very brief reminders to the Thessalonian Christians. These might be thought of as the basics of Christian living: "Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. Do not quench the Spirit. Do not despise prophecies." Rejoicing, prayer, contentment, responsiveness to the preaching of God's Word — those are all primary duties of every Christian.
Another duty is discernment. "Test everything" (v. 21) is a call to discernment. It is significant that Paul sets discernment in a context of very basic commands. It is as crucial to the effective Christian life as prayer and contentment.
That may surprise some Christians who see discernment as uniquely a pastoral responsibility. It is certainly true that pastors and elders have an even greater duty to be discerning than the average layperson. Most of the calls to discernment in the New Testament are issued to church leaders (1 Tim 4:6-7, 13, 16; Titus 1:9). Every elder is required to be skilled in teaching truth and able to refute unsound doctrine. As a pastor, I am constantly aware of this responsibility. Everything I read, for example, goes through a grid of discrimination in my mind. If you were to look through my library, you would instantly be able to identify which books I have read. The margins are marked. Sometimes you'll see approving remarks and heavy underlining. Other times you'll find question marks — or even red lines through the text. I constantly strive to separate truth from error. I read that way, I think that way, and of course I preach that way. My passion is to know the truth and proclaim it with authority. That should be the passion of every elder, because everything we teach affects the hearts and lives of those who hear us. It is an awesome responsibility. Any church leader who does not feel the burden of this duty ought to step down from leadership.
But discernment is not only the duty of pastors and elders. The same careful discernment Paul demanded of pastors and elders is also the duty of every Christian. First Thessalonians 5:21 is written to the entire church: "Examine everything carefully" (NASB).
The Greek text is by no means complex. The word "carefully" has been added by the translators to make the sense clear. If we translate the phrase literally, we find it simply says, "Examine everything." But the idea conveyed by our word carefully is included in the Greek word translated "examine," dokimaz . This is a familiar word in the New Testament. Elsewhere it is translated "analyze," "test," or "prove." It refers to the process of testing something to reveal its genuineness, such as in the testing of precious metals. Paul is urging believers to scrutinize everything they hear to see that it is genuine, to distinguish between the true and the false, to separate the good from the evil. In other words, he wants them to examine everything critically. "Test everything," he is saying. "Judge everything."
Wait a minute. What about Matthew 7:1 ("Judge not, that you be not judged")? Typically someone will quote that verse and suggest that it rules out any kind of critical or analytical appraisal of what others believe. Was Jesus forbidding Christians from judging what is taught in His name?
Obviously not. The spiritual discernment Paul calls for is different from the judgmental attitude Jesus forbade. In Matthew 7, Jesus went on to say,
For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and with the measure you use it will be measured to you. Why do you see the speck that is in your brother's eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, "Let me take the speck out of your eye," when there is the log in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother's eye. (vv. 2-5)
Obviously, what Jesus condemned was the hypocritical judgment of those who held others to a higher standard than they themselves were willing to live by. He was certainly not suggesting that all judgment is forbidden. In fact, Jesus indicated that taking a speck out of your brother's eye is the right thing to do — if you first get the log out of your own eye.
Elsewhere in Scripture we are forbidden to judge others' motives or attitudes. We are not able to discern "the thoughts and intentions of the heart" (Heb 4:12). That is a divine prerogative. Only God can judge the heart, because only God can see it (1 Sam 16:7). He alone knows the secrets of the heart (Ps 44:21). He alone can weigh the motives (Prov 16:2). And He alone "will judge the secrets of men through Christ Jesus" (Rom 2:16). That is not our role. "Therefore do not pronounce judgment before the time, before the Lord comes, who will bring to light the things now hidden in darkness and will disclose the purposes of the heart" (1 Cor 4:5).
What is forbidden is hypocritical judging and judging others' thoughts and motives. But other forms of judgment are explicitly commanded. Throughout Scripture the people of God are urged to judge between truth and error, right and wrong, good and evil. Jesus said, "Judge with right judgment" (John 7:24). Paul wrote to the Corinthian believers, "I speak as to sensible people; judge for yourselves what I say" (1 Cor 10:15). Clearly, God requires us to be discriminating when it comes to matters of sound doctrine.
We are also supposed to judge one another with regard to overt acts of sin. Paul wrote, "Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge? God judges those outside. 'Purge the evil person from among you'" (1 Cor 5:12-13). That speaks of the same process of discipline outlined by Jesus Himself in Matthew 18:15-20.
At least one other kind of judgment is expressly required of every believer. We must examine and judge our own selves: "if we judged ourselves truly, we would not be judged" (1 Cor 11:31). This calls for a careful searching and judging of our own hearts. Paul called for this self-examination every time we partake of the Lord's Supper (v. 28). All other righteous forms of judgment depend on this honest self-examination. That is what Jesus meant when He said, "first take the log out of your own eye" (Luke 6:42).
Clearly, then, the command in 1 Thessalonians 5:21, "Test everything," in no way contradicts the biblical strictures against being judgmental. The discernment called for here is doctrinal discernment. The conjunction at the beginning of this verse — "but test everything" — ties it to the "prophecies" mentioned in verse 20.
A prophecy was not necessarily a new revelation. The gift of prophecy in the New Testament has to do more with proclaiming the Word of God than with obtaining it. In the context of this passage, it clearly has to do with any spiritual message that the Thessalonians received — any message that claimed to carry divine approval or authority.
The unusually gullible Thessalonians seemed to have a problem in this regard. Like many today, they were eager to believe whatever was preached in the name of Christ. They were undiscriminating. That's why Paul addresses this continual lack of discernment in both of his Thessalonian epistles. There is evidence in the first epistle, for example, that someone had confused the Thessalonians about the return of Christ. They were going through a time of severe persecution, and apparently some of them thought they had missed the Second Coming. In chapter 3 we learn that Paul had sent Timothy from Athens specifically to strengthen and encourage them in their faith (v. 2). They were unaccountably confused about why they were being persecuted. Paul had to remind them, "you yourselves know that we are destined for this. For when we were with you, we kept telling you beforehand that we were to suffer affliction" (vv. 3-4). Evidently someone had also taught them that believers who died before the Second Coming of Christ would miss that event entirely. They were in serious confusion. Chapters 4 — 5 contain Paul's efforts to correct that confusion. He tells them that the dead in Christ will rise and be caught up with the living (4:16-17). And he assures them that although that day will come like a thief in the night (5:2), they need not fear being caught off guard (vv. 3-6).
Incredibly, shortly after this, Paul had to write a second epistle, again assuring the Thessalonians that they had not missed some great event on the prophetic calendar. Someone, it seems, had sent them a counterfeit epistle claiming to be from Paul and suggesting that the day of the Lord had come already. They should not have been duped by such a ploy because Paul had written so plainly in his first epistle. He wrote them again: "Now concerning the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our being gathered together to him, we ask you, brothers, not to be quickly shaken in mind or alarmed, either by a spirit or a spoken word, or a letter seeming to be from us, to the effect that the day of the Lord has come. Let no one deceive you" (2 Thess 2:1-3). There was no excuse for their chronic gullibility.
Why were they so vulnerable to false teaching? Surely it was precisely because they lacked biblical discernment. The Thessalonians did not examine everything in light of God's Word. If they had, they would not have been so easily hoodwinked. And that is why Paul urged them, "Test everything."
It is fair to point out that the Thessalonians were at a disadvantage compared to Christians today. They did not have all the written books of New Testament Scripture. Paul wrote these two epistles to Thessalonica very early in the New Testament era — about A.D. 51. The two letters were probably written only a few months apart and are among the very earliest of all the New Testament writings. The Thessalonians' primary source of authoritative gospel truth was Paul's teaching. As an apostle, Paul taught with absolute authority. When he taught them, his message was the Word of God, and he commended them for recognizing that: "And we also thank God constantly for this, that when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men but as what it really is, the word of God, which is at work in you believers" (1 Thess 2:13). Elsewhere he said that the commandments he gave them were by the authority of the Lord Jesus (4:2).
The substance of what he taught them represented the same body of truth that is available to us in the New Testament Scriptures. How do we know? Paul himself said so. Even as he was recording his inspired epistle to them, he reminded them, "Do you not remember that when I was still with you I told you these things?" (2 Thess 2:5). The written Word simply confirmed and recorded for all time the authoritative truth he had already taught them in person. These epistles were a written reminder of what they had already heard from Paul's own mouth (1 Thess 4:2).(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Fool's Gold?"
Copyright © 2005 The Shepherds' Fellowship.
Excerpted by permission of Good News Publishers.
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Table of Contents
About the Contributors,
Editor's Introduction John MacArthur,
PART ONE Promoting Discernment in an Age of Blind Acceptance,
1 All That Glitters ...: A Call for Biblical Discernment John MacArthur,
2 Plexiglas Preaching: The Devastating Consequences of a Watered-Down Message John MacArthur,
PART TWO Practicing Discernment in Your Local Bookstore,
3 A Sense of Purpose: Evaluating the Claims of The Purpose-Driven Life Nathan Busenitz,
4 The Old Perspective on Paul: A Critical Introduction to What Saint Paul Really Said Phil Johnson,
5 Roaming Wild: Investigating the Message of Wild at Heart Daniel Gillespie,
6 When the Truth Becomes a Tabloid: A Closer Look at The Revolve New Testament Rick Holland,
PART THREE Practicing Discernment in Your Local Church,
7 Solid Rock? What the Bible Says about Contemporary Worship Music John MacArthur,
8 Just as I Am: A Closer Look at Invitations and Altar Calls Carey Hardy,
9 Let Your Light So Shine: Examining the American-Christian Approach to Politics Phil Johnson,
10 Choking on Choices: Combating Consumerism with a Biblical Mind-set Kurt Gebhards,
PART FOUR Pursuing Discernment in Your Daily Life,
11 Hills to Die on: A Doctrinal Framework for Developing Discernment Dan Dumas,
12 Keeping the Faith: A Practical Plan for Personal Discernment John MacArthur,
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
This book is one of those love/hate relationships for me. Each chapter is a different topic and review of a popular Chritian book or trend. You either agree wholeheartedly or walk away a bit snapped at. The author(s) try to why that particular topic doesn't jive with the Bible (such as Rick Warren's Purpose Driven Life; Eldridge's Wild at Heart; Revolve Magazine as well as trends like altar calls, praise music and consumerism). Although I agreed with a majority of the concepts that the essays presented, I must admit that many of them were a bit of a buzzkill and a bit harsh (but not rude). I appreciated the opinion and explanation of the topic and really liked the book overall. If you want a simple go-lucky read, skip this one BUT you will be missing some great 'discussions' on some fairly important topics of modern trends and how they reconcile (or don't) with the Bible.
In a day and age where Christians are buying into anything with Jesus' name on it, John MacAuthor compares what is popular in Christianity, to what the Bible teaches. MacAuthor discusses some of the most popular theories and writings in contemporary Christianity, and shows the lack and ignorance of scripture in alot of our pratices today. I could not put this book down, and I highly recommend reading it before going and buying another contemporary book on Christianity. You will not be disappointed, and you will leave the book more insightful than most, who are sitting in church pews today.