“Moral Discernment”

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 12:2)

In matters of faith, I’m an Israelite (Rom. 9:6-7), but when it comes to culture, I’m a Philistine. Take classical music for example. While I enjoy listening to it, I can’t hear the difference between Vivaldi and Tchaikovsky. Sure, like most people, I know the tune of some popular Beethoven and Mozart compositions but I can’t tell you which one is which or even why they are good. My problem stems from a lack of musical knowledge. Because I lack knowledge, I have difficulty discerning between the different compositions. Had I more knowledge, I would not only become a more discerning listener but I would also enjoy the music more; increased knowledge on any subject opens up new depths of understanding and appreciation.

Paul says something similar in regard to moral discernment in Romans 12:2. There are times when the morality of a situation is plain to us. Good and evil are marked out in black and white by our conscience and we can easily discern between them. But there are other times when right and wrong are less clear. In these cases, our conscience may not be enough to go on. Another possibility is that our conscience is leading us in the wrong direction altogether. For example, Saul of Tarsus was convinced he should persecute  Christians (Acts 26:9; 1 Tim. 1:13). If our conscience isn’t always a sure bet, how can we ever be certain of discerning good from evil?

This is what the apostle addresses in this short verse. He reminds us that the “world” (1 Jn. 2:17; 5:19) we live in is always trying to “conform” and squeeze us into its twisted patterns of thinking and behavior so that we confuse good and evil, even exchange them (Isa. 5:20). This is the scheme of the devil whom Paul calls “the god of this world” (2 Cor. 4:4). He has been muddying the waters of morality since the beginning (Gen. 3:4-5). Christians must resist this pressure being exerted upon us by the world and instead be “transformed” by the “renewal” of our “mind.”

The goal of this mental transformation is the ability to “discern” what God’s will is, “what is good and acceptable and perfect.” That is, we do not start with our own judgment about what is good, concluding that it must be God’s will. Rather, we start with God’s will as it is revealed in the pages of Scripture and therein discover what is good. By defining moral boundaries in Scripture God has saved us from trying to work out right and wrong on our own (cf. Gen. 2:17).

This moral discernment, however, does not come to us magically. Paul says that it comes “by testing.” The verb translated here (δοκιμάζω, dokimazō) carries the sense of “test with a positive outcome,” “test so as to approve.” Therefore, we are to look into God’s will and then put it into practice. When we adopt God’s will as our own (Lk. 22:42), our minds are “renewed” and our lives are “transformed.” To the renewed mind, those ethical quagmires which were unclear before are more easily navigated. By training our minds through God’s word and putting it into practice, we can see “what is good” and are in a better position to make good moral judgments.

Within God’s will there are commands and prohibitions where God tells us what is good. There are a number of good examples to follow and bad examples to avoid. We are meant to renew our minds by looking into the biblical text and drawing reasonable conclusions and logical inferences to discover God’s will for us.

“He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”

(Micah 6:8)