Discerning Right From Wrong


any years back, when Cecil Knight was president of the Pentecostal Theological Seminary, he ministered in a Sunday morning worship service where I was serving as pastor. At the end of a fruitful altar service he uttered a statement which, at the time, seemed out of place. However, it was so profound and so seemingly out of the blue, I remember it today even though this was almost 25 years ago.

Dr. Knight lamented the fact we in the Church of God seem to be losing the art and gift of discernment.

In those days, the discernment we needed may have been that which Charles Spurgeon described when he avowed discernment was not always a choice between right and wrong, but between right and almost right. Those days are gone! Anyone who doubts the validity of that statement needs only to consider the seismic shift in questions of discernment from past decades to our present time.

As a young person growing up in the Church of God, we were faced with trying to discern right from wrong on issues such as how long a boy’s hair could be versus how short a girl could wear her hair. As alien as it may seem, we grappled with issues of right and wrong concerning class rings, brightly colored neckties, and whether involvement in local sporting events was appropriate for a believer.

Contrast that with the issues being debated today: same-sex marriage, gender change, immigration issues, a polarizing political landscape, and the general move away from a Biblical worldview. If ever sound discernment has been needed, it is today.

Throughout history, being able to decide what is right and living accordingly has produced powerful results. Joseph, even when a young man trapped in prison, was able to exercise discernment and save a nation (Gen. 41:33-40). Young King Solomon understood the need for discernment and passionately asked God for it, who honored his request in an unparalleled way (1 Kings 3:9-12).

Conversely, Jesus expressed His dismay at people who could discern what the sky’s color indicated but could not discern the spiritual tsunami before their eyes (Matt. 16:3).

While there is a specific spiritual gift labeled “discerning of spirits” (1 Cor. 12:10), Paul also stressed that every believer must strive to grow in both the knowledge of God and discernment (Phil. 1:9).

What Do the Scriptures Say?

How can we make choices between right and wrong in a culture which constantly espouses the belief that there are no absolutes? Where can we turn for sound direction when the strong winds of society demand acquiescence to the mantra “It’s my life, I can do what I want”?

As simplistic as it may seem, discernment, even in our post-Christian culture, must begin for the believer with the question, What does the Bible have to say? We must become a people driven by a Biblical worldview on every issue. Our decisions about right and wrong must be filtered through a Biblical lens if we want to land on the side of ultimate good.

Deep reliance on the revealed Word of God worked for the apostles when they needed discernment regarding the expansion of the faith to the Gentiles (Acts 15:13-22).  A similar reliance in our bewildering day will go a long way in helping us discern right from wrong.

Far too often we allow the talking heads on news programs or the polarizing figures on talk radio become the arbiters of where we stand on issues. Such actions lead us away from truth, for Jesus made it clear that His Word is truth (John 17:17).

The inspired Word of the Lord, the Bible─not the self-gratifying expositions of the modern pundits of politics and entertainment─will have the final say on what is right and wrong (Isa. 40:8). This will necessitate a return to serious Bible study in both our personal lives and church settings. We must get past “feel-good” preaching and once more engage ourselves with the depths of God’s Word. Only then will we have a solid foundation upon which to base our choices.

How Is the Spirit Leading?

There are numerous current issues about which the Bible does not render a concrete opinion. If the Bible did address every individual situation, it would not be a single volume of 66 books, but an ever-increasing, multilevel library. On top of that huge building would be stacked story after story of additional space devoted to the opinions about what the contents on the first floor really mean!

So, when facing a decision that is not clearly outlined in the Bible, the believer must take a second step and seriously ask, What does the Holy Spirit say about this? If we will be open to Him, the Spirit of God will lead us to truth.

The Lord searches the heart (Jer. 17:10) and knows what is in the darkness (Dan. 2:22). “The Spirit searches all things, even the deep things of God” (1 Cor. 2:10 NIV), so He can lead us into right choices when we don’t know what lies ahead. Jesus said reliance on the Holy Spirit can lead us to the truth about difficult issues (John 16:13).

As we face moral dilemmas, we must remember the Holy Spirit will never violate the written Word of God. The Spirit who inspired Paul to write that “outbursts of anger” come from one’s sinful nature (Gal. 5:20 NLT) will not justify road rage regardless of how insolent the careless driver who cut us off.

No matter how the lofty the pedestal may be upon which we place our favorite religious leader, the Holy Spirit will never give him or her a word that violates the Scriptures.

In a time when discernment seems to be lightly esteemed at best, and denounced as witch hunting at worst, we must heed the admonition of Paul: “Let God’s curse fall on anyone . . . even an angel from heaven, who preaches a different kind of Good News than the one we preached to you” (Gal. 1:8-9 NLT).

How Does This Choice Serve People?

A final filter for discerning right from wrong is the question, What service does this render to people? Jesus expressed the highest moral choice a person can make when He stated, “Greater love has no one than this, than to lay down one’s life for his friends” (John 15:13 NKJV).

Equally weighty is Jesus’ summary command, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Matt. 22:39 NKJV). When a decision about right and wrong has to be made, we should consider how it affects the lives of others.

At Odds With the Culture

We have to understand that the affirmation of the absolutes of Scripture coupled with reliance on the guidance of the Holy Spirit will not make us popular in the eyes of the world. In fact, when we determine to discern right from wrong based on a Biblical worldview, we will be at odds with the majority of our culture.

That being the case, we cannot allow the choice of many who refuse to follow Biblical truth nor the fact that they do not respect our views to cloud our judgment. We are people of the Word and the Spirit, and we stand firm upon our conviction that the Word of the Lord abides forever and the Holy Spirit will lead us to make the right decisions.

Toby Morgan is administrative bishop of the Church of God in Arkansas.