The Discipline of Spiritual Discernment Review

December 7, 2011

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Not Steps, But Wisdom

The Discipline of Spiritual Discernment is a much-needed volume on discernment to fill a perilous hole in the Christian publishing industry’s current repertoire. How glad I am that Tim Challies didn’t entitle his book Seventeen Steps to Spiritual Discernment. It might have made a bigger impact on the bestseller lists, but this was never a consideration for this first-time author, as anyone who regularly reads can attest.

Tim Challies is not a pastor; he is not a preacher; he is not a professor. But he asked the salient question, “Why do books about discernment fall out of print so quickly?” and set out to rectify the situation. More importantly, he has rightly discerned that today’s average Christian is woefully devoid of the ability to discern biblically. The Discipline of Spiritual Discernment is the fruit of that realization and its resultant labors.

Even before arriving at the Introduction, the endorsements read like a who’s who of prominent Evangelical leaders, authors, and cultural commentators. Although such a list could preemptively set up a book for failure, the opening endorsements do not have this effect on the book at hand. Both academic elites and lowly laypeople (of which I am one) should likewise benefit from this book, in which Challies puts discernment on the bottom shelf, but approaches the subject studiously enough that exacting scholars should derive some benefit as well (now and then Challies delves into original languages, if that interests you).

Like the Old-Fashioned Bible Teachers

Challies reminds me of an old-fashioned Bible teacher, one that loves and searches the Scriptures for all its fruits: the gospel saturation of a Jerry Bridges, the scriptural passion of a Terry Law, or the biblical attention to detail of a John Piper. He winds through myriad biblical accounts, not merely interpolating passages to prove his case, but relying on those biblical accounts to be his case. And like the straight-shooting Bridges, Challies has no qualms about pointing out where the gospel is black and white, for all its gray areas. In fact, he goes so far as to say gray areas are rare.

For instance, in reference to the oft-debated translation of John 1:1 in doorways everywhere between Christians and Jehovah’s Witnesses, Challies draws attention to the hairsbreadth of difference in discerning what is godly and what is not: “The word a makes all the difference”.

Moreover, unlike many (if not most) recent Christian books, Challies has no qualms about approaching the subject of backsliding. His Calvinism is apparent but not strident: “Those who have professed faith in Christ cannot backslide indefinitely. Sooner or later it will become clear that they are not believers at all and surely never were.” Later, he says, “These verses [Romans 1:28-32] ought to strike terror in the heart of all who forsake God and ought to cause us all to pause and acknowledge the depth of the evil that inhabits the hearts of men.”

But lest I paint Challies as a dour sourpuss and thus misrepresent him, I should point out that a fellow Canadian talking about baseball in print (Blue Jays baseball, at that) does my heart good. And all you a la carte fans, rejoice, for Challies uses the expression in the book.

Spiritual Detection

Employed far more often than baseball illustrations is the analogy of counterfeit currency to spiritual discernment. As counterfeit detection relies on the detector’s knowledge of the real thing, true spiritual discernment is only truly ‘activated’ when Christ is apprehended and treasured as inestimable and supremely valuable. Thus Challies roots discernment in the gospel, as it must be. And as with the gospel, with discernment comes division. A person who seeks to be discerning must be willing to suffer the effects of this division. It will divide not only believer from unbeliever, but it may even divide a discerning believer from one who is undiscerning. It will separate the mature from the immature, the naïve from the prudent.

In the course of the book, Challies makes some helpful distinctions that will serve to debunk some of the churchy urban legends that have swirled around for far too long. These include:

  • The differentiation between God’s secret will and his revealed will. Challies points out that many Christians mistake discernment as seeking out God’s secret will rather than as a careful, studied response to God’s revealed truth in the Bible.
  • “We are not to judge motives or the righteousness of other believers.” We are not to summarily and unilaterally act as the motive police.
  • In order to maximize personal (and corporate) discernment, we must belong to a church. While some say we are to ‘make up our minds for ourselves’, Scripture indicates there is wisdom in many counselors.
  • “It is not enough to test doctrine. We must also respond in godly fashion to truth or error.”


Sadly, discernment has become something of a blood sport in some Evangelical circles, resulting in rival factions, points scored and tallied, and a widespread tone more reminiscent of pagan gladiatorial combat than Christian brotherhood united in the gospel.

In view of the previous point, it is worth mentioning that while discernment is a critical ingredient in this book, the main ingredient is humility. Challies does not take the opportunity to use this book as a soapbox from which to personally malign either the undiscerning or those who lead the undiscerning astray. Instead, he compassionately calls the undiscerning to grow in maturity and calls those who promote unbiblical doctrine to examine their teaching for fidelity to the Word. Challies challenges his readers not to simply sprint pell-mell through the book, but to pause in places where he refers to Scripture in order to cross-reference extensively and engage in deeper analysis of God’s Word.

A Process

In the final chapter, Challies helpfully engages in a step-by-step discernment case study, using lyrics from a popular Christian song that seems to promote self-forgiveness. Challies has solid science behind his suggestion to write through the discernment process; not only does writing crystallize our thoughts, it is more or less thinking in an externally sensible form. As someone once said, ‘Writing is thinking on paper.’ Working through the study questions at the end of the book (all of which are critical thinking questions, not simply textual regurgitation) should also aid in developing a biblical concept of discernment.

Yet another strength of Challies’ book is that it is written in such a way that virtually every chapter could be used on its own, say, as a group study or in a pastoral counseling situation. For instance, early on in the book Challies sets up the detection of counterfeit currency as an analogy for spiritual discernment. Every time the analogy resurfaces in the course of the book, the reader is never lost as to what exact aspect of the analogy is under consideration. The initial spadework and the subsequent editing have been carried out carefully, so that the reader is never wanting for information.

I am thankful, in at least one way, that earlier books on discernment are largely out of print, for otherwise readers may not have had the benefit of this volume. Challies has ‘updated’ discernment for a twenty-first century audience, and may this book see many reprints through the years.

Note: This review was originally posted at the Discerning Reader book review site. You can read it there at The Discipline of Spiritual Discernment

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