The Gift of Discerning of Spirits
by Robert C. Veil, Jr.
In his masterful letter to the troubled Corinthian congregation, the apostle Paul dealt with a wide range of problems. One of the most serious of these issues, judging by the amount of space Paul devotes to it, was the matter of spiritual gifts. Their understanding of the miraculous gifts was perverted, and their practice of them was corrupt. Introducing an amazing explanation of spiritual gifts, Paul itemizes the various gifts themselves. Toward the end of that list is the following: discernings of spirits. The ESV has, “the ability to distinguish between spirits.” What was this gift, and why was it so crucial in the development of the early church? Further, what can we learn today about Paul’s treatment of this particular spiritual gift?
In understanding this and the other gifts, we need to bear in mind that the early Christians did not yet have the completed, written word of God in hand. Most of the New Testament books had not even been penned at the time this letter was written. So members of the church could not open their New Testament and “fact check” statements made by visiting preachers. They could search the Old Testament (cf. Acts 17:11), but the New Testament was in the process of being written. Accordingly, there was a need for a special ability to “discern” or see clearly into the statements made by these various preachers. “Discerning of the spirits” involved hearing and seeing clearly the true nature of these various speakers, preachers and prophets. To discern is to view thoughtfully and correctly. Paul earlier had spoken of “discerning the Lord’s body” in reference to properly appreciating and viewing the Lord’s church while partaking of the Lord’s Supper, (11:29-31). To miraculously “discern” a spirit was to look clearly into a person’s heart and know whether or not he is genuine. It involved being given the special gift to know whether or not a person is approved by God. Thus, the gift included the ability to distinguish sound, godly doctrine from the false and deceptive doctrines of men.
During his earthly ministry, our Lord often demonstrated the ability to look penetratingly into a person’s heart. He had the advantage over us in this regard, because he could see whether or not a person was sincere in asking a question, or whether that person was simply trying to test or try him, or “set him up,” (Mt. 16:1ff; Jn. 8:6ff). He could also see defects in a person’s heart, such as the rich young ruler who “lacked one thing,” (Mk. 10:21). The ability to spot such defects or failings was equivalent to the gift of discerning of spirits. Such a gift enabled a person to know whether or not a preacher was approved by God.
The miraculous gift to discern spirits shows how important it is for you and I to be ready to use the Scriptures for that purpose today. When we hear a man preaching what he claims is the gospel of Jesus Christ, we no longer need to find someone with this miraculous gift. We have the completed, written word of God at our disposal, and we need to use it effectively. We need to hold preachers and Bible teachers to the high standard of God’s word. We need to double check the soundness of what they are saying, and be sure it is supported by the Bible.
The gift of discerning of spirits would have been extremely valuable in the first century church, especially in the outlying areas where no apostles were close at hand. In such areas, it would not have been possible to quickly review various teachings with an inspired apostle, or check the validity of positions being taken by prominent brethren. To preserve the orderly functioning of each congregation, it would have been necessary to have at hand those who could say definitively whether or not a particular position was correct. They could say with certainty whether brother so-and-so was a faithful presenter of God’s word. And such certainty would enable congregations to move with unity and advance with confidence.
The gift of discerning of spirits would also have heightened everyone’s appreciation for the purity of God’s word. It would have made it clear that there is only one correct gospel, and that the various false teachings being circulated throughout the brotherhood were to be soundly rejected. This promoted unity throughout the brotherhood and enabled the early church to grow rapidly.
Although we do not have—because there is no need for—the miraculous gift of discerning of spirits today, we should deeply appreciate why such a gift was bestowed at that time.
-by Robert C. Veil, Jr.