All Christians are called to “test the spirits to see whether they are of God” (1 John 4:1), and yet Paul speaks of a distinct gift of spiritual discernment in 1 Corinthians 12:10. Very little is said directly about this spiritual gift, in fact it is only mentioned once in the whole New Testament. The Spiritual Gift of Discernment should be defined and clarified, then, with great humility.
The gift of Discernment is the ability to distinguish between the influence and work of the Holy Spirit and the influence and activity of demonic spirits. It is unique and distinct from the average believer’s possession of spiritual insight. All believers are called to test the spirits, to study Scripture and discern what is true, to evaluate prophecy, and to resist the devil. There are many ways in which we can discern the presence and activity of demonic spirits. Wayne Grudem notes:
Of course, to some degree the presence of demonic activity is outwardly evident, sometimes from the blurting out of blatantly false doctrinal statements (see 1 Cor. 12:2-3; 1 John 4:1-6), and sometimes from violent and bizarre physical actions, especially in the face of Christian preaching (see Mark 1:24; 9:20; Matt. 8:29; etc.). Satan’s influence is characteristically destructive, and the person influenced by a demon will have a destructive influence on the church and others around him or her, and also a self-destructive influence that harms the life of the troubled individual himself or herself. (Systematic Theology, 1083)
Thus the average Christian often needs no special gifting to identify the works of Satan. Yet, Satan is a master deceiver and he “masquerades as an angel of light” (2 Cor. 11:14). A special gifting, then, can be extremely beneficial to the church. It goes beyond the objective and outwardly evident facts to a more internal and subjective knowledge that the supernatural activity being witnessed is either from Satan or from God.
There are several places in Scripture where this gift can be seen. In Acts 13, Paul rebukes Elymas the magician, whom he discerned was energized by Satan. Likewise in Acts 14, Paul “saw” that a man had faith (v. 8-10). We note in Acts 16 that Paul is able to discern that the power of a slave girl is actually demonic power. In these examples there is a spiritual discernment active. The apostle would not have otherwise known the truth of each person.
The gift may work in similar ways today. A person with the spiritual gift of discernment may be able to tell the source of a supernatural power. They may be able to identify the presence of demonic activity. They may be able to discern the faith of another or the specific presence of God’s Spirit in a moment. They may be able to identify whether someone’s trouble comes from demonic activity or merely emotional and psychological factors. They may sense the presence of demonic activity in a room. There are any number of ways for this gift to be manifested, but the ability to discern spirits can be of real value to the church and in various ministries.
This gift is not talked about very often, and to some degree rightfully so. It is mentioned only once in the whole New Testament and the examples listed above may be the only obvious examples of it. We ought then to be careful about how we define and clarify this gifting. It seems that the description above fits best with the Biblical picture and it indicates a clear service to the church, a means of using the gifting for “the common good”(1 Cor. 12:7). This description and definition, however, must recognize the lack of detail that the Bible gives us and thus speak with a great deal of humility. The gift clearly has some value, but we want to be careful about how hard of lines we draw about its manifestation and expression.