Friday
Oct262012

Try to Discern What is Pleasing to the Lord

While living under the Old Testament surely required a healthy dose of discretion, the new covenant of Christ relies upon the believer’s ability to make wise choices every day in the face of difficult decisions, to “try to discern what is pleasing to the Lord” (Ephesians 5:10).

The Law of Moses, beginning with the Ten Commandments, but extending into arcane dietary restrictions and tightly regulated holy days, civil codes, and punishments, indicated the required response of the Hebrew in so many situations. It was, however, but a “ministry of death, carved in letters on stone” compared to the New Testament, a perfect law of liberty written upon the hearts and minds of its adherents (James 2:12, Hebrews 8:10, 10:16).

When the apostle Paul learned that some of the early Gentile disciples were being approached by the Judaizing teachers to keep the Law of Moses alongside the new covenant, he responded with indignation: 

 

Tell me, you who desire to be under the law, do you not listen to the law? … For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery. … You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the law; you have fallen away from grace. (Galatians 4:21, 5:1, 4)

 

Christ came, of course, not to destroy the Law of Moses, but to bring it to fulfillment (Matthew 5:17-20). His death upon the cross filled the propitiatory void of the old covenant, making it obsolete and ready to vanish away (Hebrews 8:13). With the shedding of his blood and the establishment of his everlasting kingdom, Jesus transferred moral authority from the Law of Moses to his own covenant, “by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances” (Ephesians 2:15). “Therefore he is the mediator of a new covenant, so that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance” (Hebrews 9:15). The legal demands of the Mosaic code were set aside, nailed to the cross on which he died (Colossians 2:14).

Although Jewish Christians continued to observe many aspects of Mosaic life for decades (see Acts 21:17-26), Gentile Christians were insulated from the imposition of defunct requirements, including ritual circumcision, the Sabbath, and kosher diets (Galatians 5:2, Colossians 2:16, Acts 10:9-16). With the fall of the Jerusalem temple in A.D. 70, the practice of classic Judaism was rendered an impossibility and the progression of the church into Gentile lands was accelerated.

Even the beloved Ten Commandments was taken out of effect, although nine of them were simply restored in the New Testament. Only the Sabbath observance with its animal sacrifice was not; disciples instead met for worship, teaching and fellowship on the first day of the week (Acts 20:7-12, First Corinthians 16:1-4).

Many aspects of the new faith are just as direct as they were in the Old Testament. There are plenty of “Do’s” and “Do not’s” in the New Testament, but the kind of specificity that accompanied the temple blueprints or the design of priestly garments is not as desirable for a covenant written on the heart instead of a stone tablet.

The disciple of Christ is required to study his New Testament, to absorb its principles and guidance, and to confront each day’s decisions with the wisdom and cautiousness derived from an interest in going to heaven (Ephesians 5:15-16). How many times do we find ourselves faced with a difficult choice – should I move to another town for a job, for instance – when we realize that the New Testament might give us some insight, but it will not simply make the decision for us?

There are so many other decisions to make concerning things with applicable New Testament principles, but without specific mandates. 

Consider your entertainment choices – movies, television programs, music, magazines, amusements, venues. Human standards – MPAA ratings, word of mouth, tradition – might be of some help, but there is no authority to attach them to the New Testament and make them binding policy. They are just too fallible and subject to human prejudice and alteration.

The New Testament will offer you operating guidance (Galatians 5:19, Philippians 4:8-9, Ephesians 5:4), but it is up to you to exercise “powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil” (Hebrews 5:14). Often, the harsher test is the subsequent realization that some among your brethren have made different choices, appearing too strict at times and too loose at others. 

The New Testament likewise directs believers to dress modestly and to live chastely and quietly (First Timothy 2:8, Titus 2:5, Second Thessalonians 3:12), but the centuries have proven that a universal and permanent application of those principles is elusive. Fashions, styles and temperaments have evolved over two millennia and continue to enjoy disparity across modern cultures. Absent exact measurements and descriptions, each believer is required to absorb the principles and demonstrate them through personal discretion (Proverbs 11:22). Any move to legislate such specifications where the New Testament does not is an unfair imposition of private judgment upon others, upon the text, and ultimately upon God, whom we presumptuously expect to judge according to our idiosyncrasies.

While we pride ourselves on “speaking where the Bible speaks and remaining silent where it is silent,” it is just as imperative that we refrain from legislating from the ground, codifying our personal applications and judgments, making them ecclesiastical tests of fellowship, barriers to conversion, subjects of gossip, sources of factionalism (Galatians 5:13-15). While New Testament commands, examples and principles are binding upon us, not every personal judgment that I make must be imitated by every other Christian living on Earth.

What judgment would you make in the following situations:

How sick is too sick to go to worship – headache, temperature, queasy feeling? Can I see a movie that is rated beyond G? How many profane words make this television program unwatchable? Can I eat in a restaurant that serves alcohol to other patrons? Can I go to the football game, the circus, or a concert, knowing that some of the performers might be dressed provocatively? Can I buy this book which was written by a religious false teacher? Can a woman wear pants to the Bible class? Can a man lead a public prayer without wearing a necktie?

The chances are good that you love many brethren who would not make the same judgments you did in every case. That does not necessarily make them sinners, unworthy of fellowship, or doomed to hell, unless we are intent upon quarreling over opinions, passing biased judgment upon God’s servants, and despising one another (Romans 14:1-12).

The Jews despised Jesus, in part because he rejected the codifying of the traditions of the elders (Mark 7:5). When he healed on the Sabbath, they judged him a sinner, but he exposed the fallacy of their argument, imploring, “Do not judge by appearances, but judge with right judgment” (John 7:24).

Paul and Barnabas found themselves in conflict over a matter of personal judgment – should they take John Mark along with them on the next missionary trip, considering his desertion from a previous one (Acts 15:36-40)? A sharp disagreement preceded a separation of the two old friends, at least for a season, and both could surely produce valid scriptural principles in support of his position. Two godly men simply came to different conclusions in a matter of judgment and personal application.

Discernment is a vital intellectual tool of the disciple, one which should not be taken away by any pope, creed, or entrenched tradition. Neither, however, is it an invitation to explore the depths of worldliness and compromise: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Romans 12:1-2). A purposeful lack of caution, pushing the limits of good sense and scriptural insight, will inevitably lead to compromise; “For whatever does not proceed from faith is sin” (Romans 14:23). “The wisdom of the prudent is to discern his way, but the folly of fools is deceiving” (Proverbs 14:8).

It is Pharisaism that we must beware, that quintessentially self-serving habit of codifying tradition, personal preference, or opinion to the division and destruction of the body of Christ (see Matthew 15:1-9). Binding where God has not bound and loosing where he has not loosed are alike in their misguided pursuit of a unity founded either on sectarian orthodoxy or humanistic license. Neither is scriptural or sustainable, for neither is rooted in the inerrant will of Christ.