Biblical Balance and Biblical Discernment
The normal Christian life is one of constant vigilance and alertness. Many pits must be avoided, and lots of dangerous extremes must be stayed clear of. Christians need godly wisdom and discernment as they navigate through their Christian journey.
There are just so many unhealthy extremes we must eschew, that seeking to stay on the straight and narrow is a fulltime job. Dangers abound everywhere, and it is so easy to veer off into unbiblical directions. Just trying to live a consistent and balanced life requires much care and prayer.
For example, one can easily become an experience junky, getting caught up in the continual need to have elevated spiritual experiences, see a non-stop flow of the miraculous, or simply depend on feelings to get through one’s daily walk.
Some of these folks live for every new spiritual sensation, some mountain top experience, or another supernatural encounter. They seem to forget that the daily walk of obedience is far less spectacular, but is in fact the normal Christian life.
Indeed, it is the hard slog of daily taking up our cross, denying ourselves, and following him that is the stuff of ordinary Christian discipleship. So this is one extreme which the Christian must avoid. But the other extreme must also be avoided.
That is to in effect live like a Christian deist, denying that God can ever do anything miraculous or out of the ordinary in our Christian walk today. Several types of Christians come to mind here. The liberal believer, who has long ago chucked out belief in the supernatural or the miraculous is one obvious example.
So too are cessationists, such as dispensationalists, who believe that all the miraculous gifts ceased with the early church, and we should never expect to see anything at all like what was recorded in the Book of Acts today. And often conservative “Bible-only” Christians can have the same distaste for any signs or wonders.
Both extremes are to be avoided, although getting the biblical balance right is seldom easy. Indeed, in backing away from one error or extreme, we can easily back into another. Francis Schaeffer used to speak of backing away from a dragon in front of you, only to back into a deadly cliff drop behind you.
Heaven Is For Real
I bring all this up because of a book review I just wrote, which has already generated a small but lively debate elsewhere. The book in question involves the story of a boy who is said to have gone to heaven and come back to tell us about it. My review is here: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2011/07/09/a-review-of-heaven-is-for-real-by-todd-burpo/
The same tendency to go to extremes can be found there. That is why in that review I did provide a number of caveats, qualifications, and provisos. These sorts of experiences can be a dime a dozen, and many can be counterfeits. In my hippy days we were into soul travel, astral projection, and the like.
So there are of course occult and New Age counterfeits of any possible genuine biblical experience. But one extreme is for believers to dismiss every single experience which a Christian claims to have as being a demonic fake and deception.
Indeed, some of these believers sound exactly like atheists and naturalists, trying to explain away every single such instance which a Christian speaks of as either just something which can be fully explained in natural terms, or worse yet, in demonic terms.
They have ruled out ahead of time any such experience, and refuse to consider any as possibly being legitimate. And of course the other extreme is to buy any and every such report, to uncritically accept any record of a supernatural experience.
We need to discern carefully people’s personal experiences and their subjective testimonies. Everything must be lined up against Scripture in other words. I knew of course that I would get flack from all sides for even daring to mention this book. I am not saying I consider it to be gospel truth.
In a fallen, finite and fallible world, no experience, no book, no article, no sermon, no anything will ever be 100 per cent gospel truth. We all see through a glass darkly, and we all get things wrong. Thus it is not my intention here to become an apologist for this particular book or this boy’s story.
I found it to be orthodox in all major theological categories. There was a clear affirmation of the Trinity, of the deity of Christ, of his unique and sole role as saviour, in the reality of Satan and so on. While more minor issues might be questioned, there was no major Christian doctrine which was distorted or denied here.
Thus I found it to be a plausible story which might be of help to others. That does not mean I have endorsed everything about it. In the same way, I don’t endorse everything about my own home church, or my favourite theologian, or my most respected Bible teacher, etc.
Thus any such story, experience, writing, teaching, or sermon has to be assessed from a biblical viewpoint. We must do this all the time. But in making use of biblical discernment, we need to be wary of falling into various unhelpful extremes.
One is to become a heresy hunter, accusing just about every other Christian leader in the world of being a heretic because they differ on some theological matters from us. Another is to uncritically accept every experience or every sermon, and not seek to square them with the teachings of Scripture.
Another error is to claim that unless the Bible specifically states something, no one is allowed to add anything to it. Let me explain what I mean here. I am not saying the canon of Scripture is still open, and new inspired books will still be forthcoming.
No, I mean that the Bible contains true truth, as Schaeffer used to say, but not exhaustive truth. That is, there is more truth found in the world than what we find in Scripture. That is, all truth is God’s truth. It is true that two plus two equals four, although I am not aware of the Bible specifically telling us that.
So in making this mathematical truth claim are we guilty of adding to the word of God? Of course not. In the same way we are told at the end of John’s gospel that only a fraction of what Jesus said and did is recorded there (John 21:24-25). And we do this all the time, eg, by using non-biblical terminology to express biblical truths, such as the word ‘trinity’.
Unless you believe that God cannot speak to his people in any way or form today, and you even think that speaking of hearing God’s voice is a deception of the devil, then we must allow that there may well be more to God than what we normally experience.
Of course any such understanding, experience, teaching or what have you has to line up with what is found in our Bible. Many of these ‘heaven and back’ stories, as I said in my review, are clearly of a demonic nature, because they do seek to deceive by claiming there is no hell, everyone is accepted by God, and so on.
Any book with those claims clearly must be rejected. But this book is not making such claims at all. Sure, it has some minor things one can quibble with. Do the human residents of heaven really have wings? The Bible does not say they do, but then again, it does not say they don’t, or they can’t.
The truth is, the Bible says very little by way of detailed accounts of what the intermediate state or the afterlife is like. We have lots of little bits and pieces, but certainly no comprehensive treatment of the subject found in Scripture. And presumably there is no need of such a comprehensive, detailed account.
So we don’t have all that much to go on. That a heavenly visit is possible is clear, since Paul had such an experience (2 Cor. 12). But in his case he was not permitted to speak of it. But does that become a blanket statement that no one is allowed to? On occasions Jesus told those who were healed not to tell anyone about it.
Does that too become a universal prohibition? There are many things individual saints were not permitted to do (drink wine, cut their hair, etc), but few of these particular prohibitions are meant to be universally applied to all believers. Thus we need to be open here, as far as Scripture allows us to be open.
So was this story of the four-year-old true or false? Was it a legitimate experience, or was it all a satanic deception? Some Christians seem to know for sure either way. I can’t be so sure. I found the story helpful to me, and I found no major biblical doctrine being nullified or perverted in the book.
But if such books are a real concern to you, then feel free to avoid them like the plague. Countless Christians have found books like The Prayer of Jabez or The Shack to be a real blessing, and felt it led them to a closer walk with God. I however found both books to be a mixed bag, and questionable at best, as I wrote in my reviews:
So there may always be a mixed reaction to any human book, teaching, experience, story, sermon, and so on. I know plenty of believers can’t stand me and my site, and really wish I would just go away. Indeed, some would accuse me of being anything but Christlike.
Others love this site and claim to receive great spiritual benefit from it. I obviously cannot please everyone, and it is clear that this book cannot either. But as long as all of us seek to be biblically balanced and discerning, that is the best we can ask for.
And two different Christians who are seeking to be discerning and balanced may well differ on many matters, even on a book like this. So in some areas we need to show a bit of grace and forbearance to others. Of course this should not be at the expense of biblical truth.
Thus even here we need biblical balance. Some believers are so much into “truth” and right doctrine, that they can be the most unloving, ungracious and un-Christlike believers around. Conversely, some believers can be so into love and acceptance and unity that they allow truth and sound doctrine to be massacred or denied altogether.
The Christian life is never easy, and it is always a juggling act, as we seek to be discerning and seek to maintain the biblical balance in so many areas. It will never be a breeze, and we won’t always get it right. But we are called to try nonetheless.
13 Replies to “Biblical Balance and Biblical Discernment”
In essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, in all things charity. … Why is that so hard for some of us?
Yes that maxim by Augustine is always worth taking to heart. I guess the problem is taking his fine general principle and seeking to apply it in specific circumstances. This is where the disagreement begins.
For example, cessationists would argue that any experience like the one recorded in this book is just not possible today, so it must be a demonic deception. Thus they would argue this is a major deal (an ‘essential’) and is therefore non-negotiable. So one can easily see how the difficulties can quickly creep in here. Much of it depends on one’s theological stance on numerous issues. As we are all fallen and finite, we will never have full theological agreement on everything.
Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch
Ah. A dose of wisdom. It’s a shame there are not more people in the world who are willing to acknowledge that they are not absolutely right in everything whenever they open their mouths. I’ve come across too many closed books – people who know everything and are never wrong. I have given up arguing with such people. It’s a waste of effort.
I pray that more people will see what you see Bill. Sometimes it’s a lot more tiring and stressful “discussing” things with Christians than unbelievers, though of course there are quite a lot of unbelievers who are closed books as well. Indeed we all need to strive to co-operate with the one who has promised to perfect us.
Yes we all need to work at this. Yet even here we need balance! We all need to be humble, stay on our knees, and seek God and his truth constantly. But one can go too far here, and not want to have any certainty about anything. Some people are truth-phobic. In that case the old saying applies: ‘A lot of open minds need to be closed for repairs’!
Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch
Thank you very much Bill
I needed to hear that put into context the way you explained it. Especially because I have had some, I’ll say heated discussions with my Christian friends in this area. There was a free to air TV program on recently and the subject was near death and people who actually died and bought back to life and even a guy who apparently, was dead for 45 minutes. I don’t know if it’s true, but what if it is?
None the less all these people went on to tell their story every where they go and some people laugh at them and some people come to Jesus. I think it would be a lot easier to not consider the possibility of these events.
Thank you so much for writing this, Bill.
After the article on the book “Heaven is for Real” and some of the comments made on facebook, I went looking for information on a couple of people mentioned to try to figure out what I thought of them… what I found was a blog intent on exposing “false prophets and teachers” (most well known Christians, including Billy Graham). However, though I think there was truth contained in it, there was also a lot of judgement, and (ironically) it appears that the person writing it was doing it by himself, but claims to have a close relationship with God, some of the things he calls into question about other people!
In my thinking and praying about it, I’ve come to some of the conclusions that are covered in this article. Also, we don’t know if we’re operating under a deception until it’s revealed! For all we know, we’re way off track until God opens our eyes and shows us the truth.
In all things, balance is important, and I want to thank you for your clear explanations – I find them really helpful.
Many thanks Kathy
Yes, as I said, there are plenty of heresy hunters out there. Of course I am accused of being one as well by some folks. It is a fine line (there is that need for biblical balance again) between rightly standing up for biblical truth and condemning everyone else who does not think the same as you theologically.
The Tim Challies review for example I found to be really thin on biblical content and big on personal attack. For example he spent time mocking the writing style of the book. But that is not the point – the issue is what we are to make of the content of the book, not whether it is a literary masterpiece or not.
But as I said under the review, I often like what people like Challies do, but that does not mean I have to agree with all that they say. That is true of the book in question as well. One can benefit from it in various ways without necessarily endorsing everything found in it.
Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch
To some, having a balance view and being charitable to differing ‘christian’ views often means an unconcern or disregard for scriptural boundaries. And so today extra-biblical teachings and practices are a very common thing in both evangelical and charismatic churches.
When clear scriptural boundaries are absent or deemphasised, then the Christian faith becomes subjective and scriptural truth is no longer absolute, like what the emergents are saying.
Dale I think part of the problem is that Christians cannot agree on what is essential and what is non-essential. What one person sees as a disputable matter others see as clear Biblical teaching.
Yes I said a similar thing in my reply to Dale. And even here there is a danger of going to extremes. In this case we can therefore think that Christians are all over the place and that they have no agreed upon set of core beliefs. But fortunately that has not been the case. For the past 2000 years all biblically orthodox Christian have affirmed a number of basic key beliefs, such as the triune nature of God, the deity of Christ, the Bible as God’s word, and so on. Sure, there is still plenty of discussion within these areas as well, but there has always been a yardstick of determining orthodoxy from heresy. Things like the Apostles Creed or the Nicene Creed offer nice summaries of these core doctrines.
Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch
Selwyn Hughes quoted John Stott: ‘We don’t know some things because God has not revealed them; we know only about the revealed things….don’t be dogmatic about the secret things and don’t be agnostic on the revealed things’. Selwyn suggested that our demand for answers to every question can lead us deeper into confusion.
Job is an interesting case: God chose to respond to Job’s questions – not with answers but with deeper questions.
Thanks Terry for the helpful quote from Stott.
Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch
“Indeed, some would accuse me of being anything but Christlike.”
If that is the case Bill, they obviously do not know what they are talking about.