Hebrews 5:12-14 says,
“For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the first principles of the oracles of God; and you have come to need milk and not solid food. For everyone who partakes only of milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, for he is a babe. But solid food belongs to those who are of full age, that is, those who by reason of use have their senses exercised to discern good and evil.” (NKJV, emphasis added)
Think about that phrase “by reason of use” as you read on.
In 1644, English puritan John Milton wrote a speech to be delivered before Parliament, called Areopagitica. The speech was never delivered, but it was later published. In it he said:
“Good and evil we know in the field of this world grow up together almost inseparably, and the knowledge of good is so involved and interwoven with the knowledge of evil, and in so many cunning resemblances, hardly to be discerned, that those confused seeds which were imposed upon Psyche as an incessant labor to cull out and sort asunder were not more intermixed. For it was from out the rind of one apple tasted that the knowledge of good and evil, like two twins cleaving together, leaped forth into this world.”
There are key similarities between this observation and the Hebrews passage. Milton was a Christian intellectual and poet who longed to see followers of Christ do just that: “have their senses exercised to discern good and evil.” He challenged Christians to study and understand the world, not only to be effective ministers and witnesses, but to be more obedient. He knew that discerning good from evil is the most important skill a believer can develop. It’s no accident that even the structure of Milton’s paragraph reiterates his point. He uses a pagan mythological reference enclosed between two Biblical references: Jesus’ parable of the wheat and the tares, Psyche’s eternal punishment for falling in love with Cupid (to separate black and white seeds into two piles, Cyclone coming to blow them back together each time), and the biblical account of the birth of Jacob and Esau. This structure reflects what he wants us to understand:
Study everything, but start with the Bible and end with the Bible. Study everything, and then compare it to what God says.
Skill in discernment leads to better obedience. Is not obedience the only purpose of a Christian? Every possible way we could bring glory to the Lord comes down to being obedient. But good and evil are devilishly intertwined throughout the world in which God left us. Only when we carefully “scout into the regions of falsity” (Areopagitica) with minds saturated in Scripture can we hope to tell the one from the other. Few issues we encounter are black and white. Hence Milton’s reference to Psyche’s pile of black and white seeds. What does a pile of such seeds look like from a distance? Gray. The challenge is to steep our minds in wisdom, and approach close enough to make the distinction.
Opportunity to exercise discernment is everywhere. The purpose of knowledge is conduct, therefore let us be first students of Scripture, and then students of our world. Though saved out of this world, we were left in it, and we have a very large amount of information to process every day, even without active study. The goal of such a skill is not to become uber-educated sanctified know-it-alls. It’s an ever-present temptation. Instead, the goal is to be able to digest the “solid food” of the Word and use that food to feed wisdom through the correct understanding of the rhetoric, art, and people we encounter.
We will never be perfect. But God calls us to be discerning. Not to hide from the world, but to be in it in an understanding way. To know better how to obey Him in each choice of life. Milton also wrote in Areopagitica,
“I cannot praise a fugitive and cloistered virtue, unexercised and unbreathed, that never sallies out and sees her adversary, but slinks out of the race where that immortal garland is to be run for, not without dust and heat.”
It will be HARD. It will be dusty and sweaty and uncomfortable, but we are commanded to run the race! To run it with endurance. We will inevitably acquire some of that dust: the error our sinful hearts and minds will accumulate in the process. But like Apoxyomenos, the Greek sculpture of the runner who stands at the finish line scraping layers of sweat and dust from his skin, we must use the two-edged sword of the Word to identify and separate error from truth, and remove it from our thinking.
Interaction with the world does not condemn us to corruption by it. Corruption already exists in our own hearts, the true home of all our temptations. However, the image of God still remains in us! The Spirit gives understanding to the diligent; so we must take everything we see and we compare it to Scripture, exalting what is good and rejecting what is evil. This will be much more difficult if the Word is not already tightly woven through our minds.
Let’s know our Bibles. Christians can be “unafraid to encounter error because we have the truth!” (Dr. Grant Horner).
I refer to Dr. Grant Horner’s 2003 chapel message at The Master’s University, entitled “Biblical Discernment”. The full audio of that message can be heard here.