Discerning Good and Evil
Let’s start with the basics. Without the existence of a Supreme Being that mankind is answerable to, there can be no such thing as good or evil. Without a standard of higher authority than the men and women affected by it, all there can be is likes and dislikes. One man might say to another, “You might disapprove of how I behave, but who are you to say that you are right and I am wrong?” People can establish rules, either by general consent or by one group imposing those rules on others, but these rules cannot be said to be correct or not by some objective standard (that is, inherently good or bad) without the existence of such a standard that is of higher authority than the people writing the rules.
Last week, for example, The US senate voted on quite a number of issues. One debate centered on extending unemployment benefits. Democrats proposed legislation to extend. Republicans were not inclined to vote for it. Democrats accused Republicans of being cold and heartless that they would allow these benefits to expire, especially at Christmas time. Republicans countered that they were not necessarily against the extension if it could be shown how it was going to be paid for without increasing the national debt and thus increasing the burden placed on our children and grandchildren for many years to come. Each side accused the other of being immoral. Who is right? More fundamentally, is there any such thing as right or wrong, good or evil, on one side of this issue or the other? Without a moral standard of higher authority than both Democrats and Republicans, there would no right or wrong here, only opinions, likes and dislikes. Neither side would have a solid basis for claiming that what they like has more value than what the other side likes.
The Bible (as originally written) is the standard. It was given by revelation from God, the Righteous Judge. It reveals what is right and wrong, not just what is preferable to one group or another. Recognizing this is the beginning of learning to distinguish between good and evil.
2 Timothy 3:16 All scripture is given by inspiration of God [theopneustos: God-breathed], and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness:
17 That the man of God may be perfect, throughly furnished unto all good works.
It isn’t just that the Scriptures of the Bible are the standard I have chosen for myself while some other standard someone else chooses is equally valid for him. There can be only one true standard. If there are multiple contradictory standards, each having equal validity, then there is no universal standard at all, and good and evil do not exist.
We will recognize the distinction between good and evil and know what is objectively good and what is objectively evil, only to the extent that we know God’s Word. This knowledge must be all-encompassing, not isolated verses that seem to validate one’s predetermined agenda. It must be a knowledge of God’s original intent, not merely our own personal interpretations. God’s Word means what it says, not whatever it is one might want it to mean.
2 Peter 1:20 Knowing this first, that no prophecy [that which emanates from the mind of God, not just foretelling] of the scripture is of any private [idios: one’s own] interpretation.
21 For the prophecy came not in old time [better translated: at any time] by the will of man: but holy men of God spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost.
The Scriptures are not our individual personal property to be interpreted any way we feel like. The words, “rightly dividing” in 2 Timothy 2:15 are translated from orthotomeo, meaning a straight or right cutting. All other cuts are wrong.
2 Timothy 2:15 Study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.
One would be hard pressed to find a Scripture that specifically addresses whether the US Senate should or should not have extended unemployment benefits (just an example). This does not mean, however, that the Scriptures do not speak to the issue in a broader sense that can be determined. And as we honestly study the Scriptures and do them, our moral compasses so to speak become more accurately calibrated.
Hebrews 5:12 For when for the time ye ought to be teachers, ye have need that one teach you again which be the first principles of the oracles of God; and are become such as have need of milk, and not of strong meat.
13 For every one that useth milk is unskilful in the word of righteousness: for he is a babe.
14 But strong meat belongeth to them that are of full age [telios: mature, lacking nothing for completeness], even those who by reason of use [hexis: habit, habitual use] have their senses [aistheterion: faculty of the mind for perceiving, understanding, judging] exercised to discern both good and evil.
People who know and habitually practice the Word of Righteousness will ever more and more learn to make righteous judgments. All others will be at best hit and miss in their assessments.
Have we been endowed by our Creator with certain inalienable rights (and thus, no government has a right to infringe upon them), or are these just nice words in a civil document? The things that are freely given to us of God are known by way of the spirit of God within the born-again ones and by way of spiritual words.
1 Corinthians 2:12 Now we have received, not the spirit of the world, but the spirit which is of God; that we might know the things that are freely given to us of God.
13 Which things also we speak, not in the words which man’s wisdom teacheth, but [in the words] which the Holy Ghost teacheth; comparing spiritual things with spiritual [words].
The natural man (that is, the man of body and soul, the man who is only as he is naturally without the spirit of God within) does not receive the things of the spirit of God. He does not understand them. Matters pertaining to the will of God are foolishness to him. He has no true standard for good and evil.
1 Corinthians 2:14 But the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him: neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned.
Every man thinks he knows what is right, but the natural man just doesn’t get it. Even if he accepts a moral code that is mostly right, when the temptation is great enough, due to his own self-interests, he will cave. He will do so because he doesn’t really understand. He can’t understand spiritual matters, including discerning good and evil. He is powerless to do so.
The spiritual man (that is, the man who has the spirit of God within and lives by spiritual words) discerns all things. He gets it. He understands what is going on in life. The natural man doesn’t, and he does not understand the spiritual man.
1 Corinthians 2:15 But he that is spiritual judgeth [discerns] all things, yet he himself is judged [discerned] of no man.
Of course the natural man will judge the spiritual man, just not correctly so. He will think the spiritual man is a religious nutcase, or perhaps even a danger to society. He is likely to arrogantly view the spiritual man as an unintelligent naïve simpleton. Nothing could be farther from the truth. The natural man does not have the mind of the Lord so as to be able to be the spiritual man’s teacher.
1 Corinthians 2:16 For who hath known the mind of the Lord, that he may instruct him? But we [the spiritual ones] have the mind of Christ.
True discernment of good and evil comes from a knowledge of the Scriptures. A natural man might know that stealing is wrong, or he might think it is wrong only in certain situations. Perhaps he errantly thinks it is OK to steal from the rich, just not from the poor. To whatever extent the natural man correctly judges what is good and what is evil, his knowledge has come from the Scriptures even though he does not recognize the Source.
There is no such thing as a mystical inner voice within all mankind that directs people toward moral behavior. The conscience is nothing more or less than the result of what one has been taught. Only when one has been taught rightly, accurately according to God’s Word, and has internalized and practiced this teaching will his conscience be a true guide.
As we learn and habitually practice the Word of Righteousness, true moral judgments will become more and more clear.