Discernment must be exercised by Christian both in the personal and public realm. It must shine the light of truth of Scripture on what is within and on that without. As the writer to Hebrews makes clear throughout the letter, believers must discern the sin within their own hearts—in order to gaurd against it—while recognizing the threat of false teachers and persecution from without.
With the potential for the entire world to stream into our minds and hearts by means of the internet, it is safe to conclude that there has never been a time when Christians needed discernment so much as at present. But what is discernment? How do we get it? And, in what areas of our lives does God call us to exercise it? These are some of the more important questions upon which we ought to focus our attention, for the simple reason that there is a noticeable lack of discernment in the church and in our own hearts and lives.
Sinclair Ferguson rightly noted that discernment is not simply to be exercised with regard to false teaching that threatens the truth of God among believers. He writes,
“Most of us doubtless want to distance ourselves from what might be regarded as ‘the lunatic fringe’ of contemporary Christianity. We are on our guard against being led astray by false teachers. But there is more to discernment than this. True discernment means not only distinguishing the right from the wrong; it means distinguishing the primary from the secondary, the essential from the indifferent, and the permanent from the transient. And, yes, it means distinguishing between the good and the better, and even between the better and the best.” 1
Discernment keeps us from erring in that upon which we focus our attention and in what we emphasize. It ensures that we value what God values and hold loosely to what we ought to hold loosely. To this end, we desperately need to discover the source of discernment.
Writing to a congregation beset by the threat of their own sin within, as well as the persecution from the Jewish community without, the author of Hebrews brought an indictment against those who were listening to false teachers. He observed,
“You have become dull of hearing.For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the basic principles of the oracles of God. You need milk, not solid food,for everyone who lives on milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, since he is a child.But solid food is for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil” (Heb. 5:11–14).
The believers to whom the letter was written needed to “have their powers of discernment trained.” They needed the solid food of Scripture. In the context, the solid food is tantamount to the deep things of Christ (Heb. 6:1). The “good and evil” between which they were to distinguish were the truths about the fulfillment of all things in Christ (i.e., the once-for-all sacrifice of Christ, the great High Priesthood of Christ, the continual intercession of Christ, the superiority of the new covenant over the old covenant, and the need to continue to live by faith in Christ) in contrast with the weak and beggarly elements of the world. There was also their need to heed the warnings about departing from the faith, by a willful embrace of their former sinful lives (Heb. 6:4–8; 10:26–31). The promises and the warnings of Scripture, with a focus on Christ, was the source of training discernment in the minds of hearts of believers.