Monday, January 18, 2010

Learning to Discern: The Critical Importance of Personal Scriptural Literacy

But there were also false prophets among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you. They will secretly introduce destructive heresies, even denying the sovereign Lord who bought them—bringing swift destruction on themselves.
--2 Peter 2:1-3

Dear friends, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world.
--1 John 4:1-3

For such men are false apostles, deceitful workmen, masquerading as apostles of Christ. And no wonder, for Satan himself masquerades as an angel of light. It is not surprising, then, if his servants masquerade as servants of righteousness….
--2 Corinthians 11:13-15

Nearly 30 years ago, a young believer who had yet to develop a steady habit of Bible study began relying heavily on the radio ministry of one particular teacher to find comfort during stressful times, and to stay, by a fragile thread, in touch with the Word.

The young believer had known since his elementary school days about this teacher’s radio ministry, but began listening to him much more frequently during his college years. The teacher’s ability to retain scripture in memory was encyclopedic in scale. And all of his commentaries seemed soundly based on the crucial Bible-study principle of testing any interpretive conclusion by comparing scripture against scripture. An interpretation of one verse, in other words, must stand the test of interpretation in the context of every other verse of the Bible.

In some rare instances, the young believer felt just a tinge uncomfortable with what he was hearing, but the teacher’s assertions always seemed so soundly locked into a scriptural context that they appeared to be air tight.

His end-time teachings seemed more sensible and scripturally bound than any that the young believer had ever heard. The teacher was highly critical of those who would go so far as to predict the date of Christ’s return. He argued compellingly about the error of those who practice “newspaper eschatology” and incessantly try to link current events to scriptural prophecy to make the case that the Second Coming is just around the corner. And he frequently quoted Christ’s words in Matthew 24:36: “No one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.”

But about eight years later a strange thing happened. The teacher suddenly announced that he now believed that The Church had entered The Final Tribulation. And he predicted a specific date, just a few years away, for Christ’s return. He published a book full of strange numerological analyses of scripture that, he claimed, validated all but indisputably his prediction.

The young believer, who by this time was out of college and well into his young adult working life, was bewildered, not knowing what to make of this odd turn by a leader he had respected so much for so long. The predicted date, of course, came and went—it has now been more than 15 years. And the whole turn of events was a contributing factor in a deep lapse in the young believer’s faith that lasted the better part of a decade.

While leaders play an indispensable role in the Body of Christ, stories like this, which appear to be all too frequent, illustrate clearly the danger to the individual Christian of relying too heavily on the teachings of other people and not becoming sufficiently immersed in direct, personal study of scripture.

There are two principle dangers that a person faces who relies too much on the teachings of others as a substitute for personal Bible study. At one level there is a danger of encountering leaders who, though they are truly saved and anointed by God as leaders, may at some point fall victim to their own human vulnerabilities and failings, compromising their ability to impart sound teaching to those who look to them for guidance.

But much more dangerous are the truly apostate leaders who clearly are in our presence: the “deceitful workmen, masquerading as apostles of Christ,” diverting the unsaved from the true gospel and throwing off track the spiritual lives of Christians who, though saved, have not sufficiently developed the spiritual discipline of discernment.

Developing the skill to study the scriptures for oneself, under the ultimate guidance of the Holy Spirit—who, unlike human leaders, can never fail us—is the only reliable way to learn to discern. And one of the best ways to develop this discipline is to start, at a very young age, a structured habit of daily Bible study in a Christian educational setting.

A purposeful Bible-study habit that begins in childhood is much more likely to carry over into young adulthood, when faith is likely to be put to the most challenging tests. With a sound foundation in scripture and an intimacy with the Holy Spirit, the ability to discern that one is hearing a false teaching becomes almost instinctive. Even before you analyze the words, you get a sense that it just “feels wrong.” As a Christian who has learned to discern, you are much more able to “guard your heart” (Proverbs 4:23).

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