The Discipline of Spiritual DiscernmentThe Discipline of Spiritual Discernment
Tim Challies
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Discernment - we all need it, it is much sought-after, but not many seem to want to go through the steps to get it. Much of the time this is because discernment is misunderstood. In this his first book, Tim Challies grapples with this problem head-on, and simplifies the process for those looking for a clear definition of what biblical discernment truly is.

Beginning with the clear scriptural mandate to be discerning, Challies encourages Christians to focus on what discernment is, what it means to committed Christians, and the consequences of not acquiring a mature ability to discern between right and wrong. In a world where truth is downplayed and ambiguity is embraced, discernment is indispensable to an active and engaged Christian faith.

Challies pulls no punches in outlining this defining characteristic of all mature Christians, giving its biblical basis and reasons for developing it. But he goes further to warn against the abuse or misuse of discernment - speaking the truth without love, elevating disputable doctrine to the level of critical doctrine, assigning guilt (or honor) by association, etc. - as well as giving a practical way to implement discernment. Concise, comprehensive and challenging, The Discipline of Spiritual Discernment will serve as a standard text on this subject for many Christians.

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What people or books influenced you in creating Handbook of Church Discipline?
If you wanted to see who influenced me in writing this book you could look at the book reviews I had written in the two years or so prior to its publication. When I began looking for a topic to write about I went back over all that I had read in the years prior and saw that so many of the books pointed in the same direction — they pointed to discernment. I had read books by John MacArthur, Jay Adams, John Piper and so many other Christians who have valued and exhibited discernment in their lives and ministries. I determined that I could learn from them and provide a biblical examination on the topic of spiritual discernment. As I looked around I soon realized that there had been very little written on the subject in recent years and that it was probably high time someone took on the task of writing about it. And this is largely what I did. And just like that a book was born.


You mention 'backsliding' as a possible category for Christians who do not display discernment. As your book has a written foreword by none other than Rev. John MacArthur, well known for his support of the doctrine of Eternal Security (once a person is saved - truly saved, not simply deciding that Christianity is the best of other options, but a true repentance and faith in Christ as Lord and Savior - they cannot lose their salvation or 'backslide'), how do you define 'backsliding' in the context of your book?
I do believe in the doctrine of eternal security — that a person who has been truly saved by God cannot at any time become unsaved. As we look at such a doctrine, I think it is important that we distinguish between the spiritual reality and our perception of it. There is obviously a vast difference between what we see of ourselves and of another person and what God sees. I think most Christians have dealt with the reality of seeing a person whom we were convinced was a Christian, only later to see that person fall away. Such a person may well have believed that he was a Christian, but his later actions have proved that this was not really the case. From our perspective that person was once a Christian and now no longer is; from God’s perspective that person was never truly saved. Hence we need to ensure that we are living as God calls His children to live. If we find we are backsliding it may be proof that we are not true believers, and hence never were. Christians may backslide and regress in the process of becoming like Christ; but a Christian cannot regress indefinitely. If this happens, we will need to understand that the person was never truly saved.

Early in the book you posit that without discernment the Christian is at best immature (pp. 22-24), but you also state that some Christians never get the spiritual gift of discernment (p. 137). Are you implying that God want some Christians to remain immature while still striving for maturity, or is the non-gift version of discernment good enough for maturity?
In the book I affirm that there is such a thing as a spiritual gift of discernment where God specially gifts some people in this area. Yet I also affirm that God requires all Christians to exercise discernment. In this way discernment is much like evangelism — it is something God requires of all of us but something for whom some Christians receive a special gift. Though I may not have been gifted with evangelism, I am nevertheless responsible for sharing my faith with others. Similarly, while some people may not have a special gift for discernment, they are still responsible before God to pursue discernment and to pursue spiritual maturity. To answer the question directly, then, the “non-gift version of discernment” is honoring to God. Some people will simply have to work harder to become discerning (just like it is far more difficult for me to share my faith than it is for other Christian I know for whom it comes so naturally).

You point out that discernment takes discipline, humility, commitment, dedicated effort - things that chafe against much in post-modernity. Do you find, with so many elements perceived to be negative qualities (or at least difficult and time-consuming to develop) that this is the main reason for so many undiscerning church-goers?
I don’t know that I can narrow in on one main reason that there are so many undiscerning church-goers, and especially so in our cultural context. I think there are many cultural forces at work against us and these cultural forces are no doubt enhanced and carried on by spiritual forces. Satan knows that if he can keep Christians from pursuing discernment and maturity, he can keep Christians from understanding God as He truly is and living in the way He calls us to live. With so many forces arrayed against us, it stands to reason that many Christians are blinded to the need for growing in their spiritual discernment.

Has there been a point in the history of the Church where discernment had its golden age?
I suspect that if we parachuted in to any specific period of church history we would find people there who would lament the state of the church in their day. I don’t think any would proclaim that their period stood as the high point of spiritual discernment. Instead it may be best to look to individuals whose lives and ministries were marked by spiritual maturity and spiritual discernment; and obviously here we can turn to Scripture and learn from Jesus Christ and from men like Paul. We can turn to men like Jonathan Edwards or Charles Spurgeon and any other number of Christians and see how their lives were marked by discernment. And there are Christians in our day as well from whom we have much to learn.

Concerning children, how would you advise parents to bring them up in a way that both models and fosters discernment?
Parents will primarily need to raise their children in the fear and admonition of the Lord. If parents are teaching their children the Scriptures and helping them apply the Scriptures to their lives; if parents are modeling critical thinking and letting their children see how they model critical spiritual thinking, I believe this will be a gift to their children and help foster discernment in their young lives.

What events led to your repentance and faith in Christ as Lord and Savior?
I had the great privilege of being raised in a Christian home and of attending churches where the Bible stood central. I cannot point to a particular instant in my life and proclaim that this was the point where Christ saved me; rather, I see a slow but steady process of God working His truths into my heart. Eventually, as do so many children, I made the faith of my parents my own. What I mean by that is that I began to realize that I was no longer just imitating the faith of my parents and giving them the answers I knew they expected. Rather, I realized that God had worked faith in my life and that I truly believed in Him not just intellectually, but in my heart of hearts. As I have spoken to other Christians who were raised in Christian households I’ve found that my journey is far from unique.

How did you develop your 17 steps for practicing discernment?
These steps were developed as I sought to apply discernment to particular circumstances or to particular teachings I had encountered. In retrospect I can see that I should have distilled them down to five or ten, but I really wanted to show in this chapter how I moved from a question to what I hope is a biblical answer. This chapter was less a how-to and more of an example. As I worked through the scenario outlined in the book and others like it, the steps came together as a way of mining both Scripture and the wisdom of other Christians to arrive at biblical solutions.

You are best known for your website, which is well-known for your reviews of (mostly) Christian books. Can you give us a history of how the site developed that way and how you became so well-suited to the purpose?
My blog has, indeed, achieved the reputation of a site that focuses on book reviews. Of course there is more to the site than that and I tend to post only one or two book reviews per week out of the seven to ten posts I write. I really began writing book reviews because I was reading books and determined that others might enjoy learning from what I was reading. It was rather a surprise to me to find that there really are very few people who are writing reviews of (mostly) Christian books. Because of that, people have turned to my blog (and to my other site, as a source for what I hope are discerning reviews of books that are of interest to Christians. I am not convinced that I am so well-suited to the purpose of reviewing books; I am sure there are others who could do a far better job. Yet for some reason there are not very many people reviewing Christian books at this time.

How do you read a book in preparation for reviewing it?
This really depends on the book. There are some books I read for comprehension and application and there are others I read primarily to review them (much like a music reviewer will listen to his favorite albums in the car on the way to work and then spend the rest of his day listening to albums so he can review them). There are times, of course, where a book I begin to read thinking it will have a deep impact on my life proves to be shallow or unscriptural, but usually I have a good sense when I set out to read a book whether it is one I will want to remember and apply or if it is one I am reading mostly to review it. When I read a book to review it, I tend to read it fairly quickly, though I typically take notes, use a highlighter and so on to ensure that I am absorbing the author’s points. When I read a book primarily for comprehension and application and only secondarily for review, I tend to move slower, to take more notes, and to take a lot more time pausing to apply. I may also write one or more articles about it to post on my blog.

How long does it take to read an average length book for review purposes, and how long for one you choose for pleasure?
This can vary a fair bit. A book I am reading purely for pleasure with no plans to review it may take me a couple of evenings. A book I am reading for review purposes and am studying carefully may take a week of evenings. There are so many factors that can impact this, though, that it is difficult to really say with any kind of accuracy. Reading is something I do for pleasure and I find the mere activity of reading to be pleasurable. This makes the task of reading a lot more enjoyable to me than it might otherwise be.

Is there anything that you'd like to add?
I guess I would just say to those reading this interview that if they are interested in discernment, to consider visiting my blog ( and especially the book review site I manage ( Discerning Reader is a site that makes what I feel is a unique contribution. Knowing that most Christians read only a few books per year, we seek there to try to guide people to the three or four books that will be most biblically sound and that will have the deepest impact on their faith. We post reviews every week and hope you’ll consider adding it to your list of regular reads!