In my previous article I argued that believers shouldn’t be afraid to exercise discernment, particularly in the face of impressive Christian leaders or miracles. I showed that discernment is how we lovingly obey God, prioritising his truth over any signs or spectacular people. This is an important point, because discerning miracles or the man of God is often discouraged, leveraging the fear that we might be blaspheming the Spirit. But how do we practice discernment? In this article I argue that we need sound doctrine and a deep understanding of the Bible, especially when miracles are involved.
We need sound doctrine to practice discernment, especially when miracles are involved.
All biblical guidelines for exercising discernment are complimentary, equally important, and valuable. But doctrine is one of the most neglected means of discernment, especially in African townships permeated by the prosperity gospel. Doctrine protects us against being misled. More importantly, God’s truth is a means of nurturing our relationship with Christ.
Miracles aren’t Necessarily Evidence of God’s Work
Now, we know that not everyone who performs miracles and prophecies in Jesus’ name is being used by God (Matthew 7:21-23). In fact, Jesus warned that “false christs” (literally ‘false anointed ones’) and false prophets will arise, performing great signs and wonders (Matthew 24:24). But how do we know if the miracle-working is from God or not? In most cases, we answer this question by pointing to the miracles, signs, or wonders. These are usually enough. Aren’t they? This is very much the case throughout Africa. I, personally, attended conferences as a young believer because I’d heard that the speaker performed miracles.
I attended conferences as a young believer because I’d heard that the speaker performed miracles.
One perceived function of miracles is that they bear witness to the validity of the person performing them. When we hear that a prophet can perform miracles we instinctively assume that they are being used by God. We deem the miracles as evidence of God’s power, without properly discerning them. For when we do this we forget Jesus’ warning, that false prophets can also perform miracles (Matthew 24:24). More than once in Acts Jesus’ disciples had to remember Jesus’ caution, as they encountered people performing signs and wonders (Acts 8:9-11; 16:16-18; 19:13). Their measure was always whether those working the miracles also proclaimed the apostolic gospel.
The Necessity of Doctrine in Discerning Miracles
So, how do we know if someone is truly a true prophet of God? Calvin answered this in his Institutes, saying: “Ascertain and examine the doctrine which is said by the Evangelist to precede; then after it has been proved, but not till then, it may receive confirmation from miracles.” In short, Calvin says we should examine teaching and doctrine first, miracles second. The latter doesn’t mitigate the need for doctrinal discernment. We must prioritise theological truth over signs, however tremendous. This truth trumps miracles. So we should ignore the mighty and assess the message.
Truth trumps miracles. So we should ignore the mighty and assess the message.
This principle is evident in Deuteronomy 13:2, when God warns Israel about miracle-working prophets and dreamers. The Lord says that if a miracle working prophet or dreamer says, “‘Let us go after other gods,’ which you have not known, ‘and let us serve them,’ you shall not listen to the words of that prophet or that dreamer of dreams.” In other words, rather than being filled with awe and blindly following a prophet because of their miracles, God commanded Israel to be discerning and pay attention to the prophet’s teachings about God.
You’re only as Great as Your Gospel
In Galatians 1:6-8 Paul uses a similar principle. Of course, he’s exaggerating to make a point. But the fact that he says even if “an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed,” shows that we should not accept anyone simply because they perform miracles. Rather, we should accept them because they preach the true gospel. Imagine waking up to a blinding light, a mighty angel of heaven. Only his thunderous voice declares half truths about Jesus or even denies him. In that instance, Paul says we should block our ears. Therefore, if we are to reject an angel because of unbiblical teaching, how much more should we pay close attention to what is taught in the pulpit today.
The best way to discern if someone is being used by the Spirit, is by examining what they say about Jesus.
John uses the same principle when he encourages his audience to test spirits. He says: “By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God. And every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God” (1 John 4:2-3). Though he was addressing a popular false teaching of his day, the principle is clear. The best way to discern if someone is being used by the Spirit of God is by examining what they say about Jesus Christ.
Learn to Discern
In closing, for the pastor reading this article, one of our Christ-given mandates is to see that your congregation is equipped with the knowledge of Jesus Christ. This, Paul says, is so that they can exercise discernment, remaining unmoved by false teaching (Ephesians 4:12-14). It is our responsibility to see that our people are equipped with the necessary skills for practising discernment. Core to this is learning how to handle God’s word. As Paul said to Timothy: “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15). If we rightly handle God’s word, the people that God has entrusted to us, will know when another teacher isn’t.
God has entrusted you with the responsibility to practise discernment, using doctrine.
To everyone else reading this, God has entrusted you with the responsibility to practise discernment, using doctrine. So study theological truth, improve your Bible handling, and learn about Christian history. Even if you aren’t a pastor or Christian leader, you have the responsibility to discern if what you’re being taught accords with Gods truth. God expects this.