7. Gifts of the Spirit: Discernings of Spirits

It is a broad enough to help you distinguish between the false and the true, the Holy Spirit and evil spirits, deceived and true humans.

Let’s begin with my (tentative) translation.

4 There are a variety of gifts, but the same Spirit. 5 There are a variety of services, and the same Lord. 6 And there are a variety of workings, but the same God who works everything in everyone. 7 To each the manifestation of the Spirit is given towards the common benefit. 8 For to one person is given through the Spirit a message of wisdom; to another person a message of knowledge by the same Spirit; 9 To a different person faith by the same Spirit; to a different person the gifts of healings by the one Spirit; 10 To a different person workings of miracles; to a different person prophecy; to a different person discernings of spirits; to a different person kinds of (prayer and praise) languages; to another person an interpretation of (prayer and praise) languages; 11 The one same Spirit works and distributes all these things to each particular individual as he wills. (1 Cor. 12:4-11)

For other translations, please click here: biblegateway.com

For my commentary on how to organize these gifts, please click here:

Gifts of the Spirit in 1 Corinthians 12:7-11 and 12:28

Exegetical Commentary on “Discernings of Spirits”

Some theology: Above are three great verses (4-6) on the activity of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. The Triunity is not an abstract doctrine, but the three persons want to invade your space and gift you, so that you can reach and help people.

Click here The Trinity: What Does He Mean to Me? and at the end of that linked ten-point post, you can click on other articles on the Trinity.

“discernings”: it comes from the Greek noun diakrisis (pronounced dee-ah-kree-seess), and it is in the plural. The formal definition is “the ability to distinguish and evaluate, distinguishing, differentiate” (BDAG). It is built on the noun krisis (pronounced kree-seess), and this noun means “a legal process of judgment, judging, judgment.” Diakrisis means to judge something thoroughly, and since it is the gift of the Spirit, it must take on a charismatic dimension. It cannot be just a critical spirit, which judges people who are not like us. Many of us have critical, judgmental minds, and this is not of God. It is soul power, not the Spirit’s power.

“spirits”: it too is in the plural, and therefore cannot mean just the Holy Spirit. It can include the human spirit, angelic spirits, and evil spirit beings (demons).

Different translations:

Discerning of spirits (KJV, NKJV);

Distinguishing of spirits (NASB);

Ability to know whether it is the Spirit of God or another spirit that is speaking (NLT);

To know the difference between good and evil spirits (NCV);

Recognize when God’s Spirit is present (CEV);

Distinguishing between spirits (MSG);

Distinguish between spirits (NIV, ESV).

Defining and Describing This Gift

J.. Rodman Williams

The word “distinguishings” may also be translated as “discernings” and refers to “judging through,” a piercing through what is outward to the inner reality. Since “distinguishings is in the plural, more than one discerning in a given situation is implies. The individual to whom the gift is imparted will be enabled to accomplish more than one distinguishing or discerning (vol. 2, p. 388).

These discernings come on through the Holy Spirit. This gift can distinguish between (1) human spirits (John 1:42; 47; 2:25; Mark 2:8). Feelings and motivations can be discerned, but having a critical spirit that rebukes people and points out their flaws is not the right path; (2) demonic spirits (Acts 5:1-9; 13:8-10; 16:16-18); (3) angelic spirits (Heb. 1:14; 12:22; 13:2).

Wayne Grudem

He defines it thus: “Distinguishing between spirits is a special ability to recognize the influence of the Holy Spirit or a demonic spirit in a person” (p. 1082).

Craig Keener

He limits the gift to discerning and evaluating prophecy accurately, such as erroneous and true prophecies. He offers, however, occasions in which he discerned false teachings and persons caught in a cult. But the main context is judging prophecies (Gift Giver: The Holy Spirit for Today [Baker Academic, 2001], pp. 121-23.

David Lim

Since “distinguishings” and “spirits” are in the plural, some scholars see a variety of way this gift may be manifested. It follows prophecy, so some believe it is primarily exercised in weighing prophecies (1 Cor. 14:29). It is supernaturally given and protects us from attacks of Satan and evil spirits (cf. 1 John 4:1). It is not to be used to tell people of what spirit they are; rather, it is a specific gift for a specific occasion (Systematic Theology, ed. Stanley Horton, pp. 476-68).

Derek Prince

He says it is a supernatural gift that comes under God’s control. It can be used to discern or distinguish between a variety of spirits. (1) The Holy Spirit; (2) good angels; (3) fallen angels or demons or evil spirits; (4) human spirits (The Gifts of the Spirit, [Whitaker House, 2007], pp. 87-88).

Jack Hayford

“In the exercise of the gift of discernment, we are dealing with an insight into the invisible realm—with the ability to ‘divide between’ the human and the hellish (the flesh and the devil) and often with the ability to determine the source or root of a problem as it stems from the spiritual realm” (Gifts, Fruit, and Fullness of the Holy Spirit [Thomas Nelson, 1993], p. 145, quoting from an unpublished manuscript written by himself)

Paul Walker

This manifestation is: (1) supernatural power to detect spirits and their activities; (2) spiritual insight, which is supernatural revelation of plans of Satan and his evil spirit beings (The Spirit-Filled Study Bible [3rd ed. Thomas Nelson, 2018], pp. 1947-48).

My Definition

It is a Spirit-inspired, charismatic gift by which the one who is exercising it can discern, recognize, distinguish, judge, and evaluate between human spirits, angelic spirits, demonic spirits, and the Holy Spirit, particularly the demonic spirit, and preferring the Holy Spirit over the other spirits.

The current “discernment ministries” that have hit youtube hard are mostly not biblical. These “ministers” do not do their homework and often take their opponents’ words out of context and do not give them the benefit of the doubt. They are bearing false witness. Often these ministers are Calvinists, and this doctrine has strange ideas in itself. Often these ministers have a shriveled and therefore unbiblical pneumatology (doctrine of the Spirit). Rather than critique Progressive Christianity and its bad ideas, they instead go after their brothers and sisters in Christ who have a fuller and therefore more biblical pneumatology. Rather than go after various cults, they insist on attacking Charismatics and Pentecostals.

Jas. 3:1 says there should not be many teachers, for they shall incur a stricter or more severe judgment. These discernment ministers, often bearing false witness and dredging up old statements that their “heretic” targets have long ago abandoned, are in danger of being judged severely when the stand before God.

Scriptural Examples

First, let’s look at discerning the Spirit’s presence.

In John 1:29, 31-33 the Spirit fell on Jesus in the form of a dove, and John the Baptist saw it; others apparently did not. In John 12:29 the Father spoke to the Son in an audible voice. Some said it was thunder; others said it was angel. It takes discernment to know spiritual things.

Second, as to angels, Jesus promised that Nathaniel would see angels descending and remaining on the Son of Man (John 1:50-51). That takes discernment.

In John 20:1-12, Mary saw two angels at the empty tomb of Jesus.

In other cases, God withheld the gift of discerning of angelic spirits even when people hosted them in their homes (Heb. 13:2).

Third, let’s look at discerning human spirits.

In Acts 8:18-23, Peter discerned the heart of Simon the sorcerer and rebuked him.

Let’s look at a synonym for discerning.

In another case of discerning human spirits and their doctrines, 1 John 4:1-2 says that we must not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God because many false prophets have gone out to the world. On what basis? Verse 2: Every spirit that confesses Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God; if a spirit confesses that he has not come in the flesh, then he is not of God. The context is the proto-gnostics who believed the flesh was evil, so someone so pure as Jesus could not come in the flesh. False. Their spirits may be demonic in these two verses or their human spirits may be deceived. Satan loves to deceive people (1 Tim. 4:1).

Whatever the case, we are supposed to test them. The Greek word is dokimazō (pronounced doh-kee-mah-zoh), and it means “to make a critical examination of something to determine genuineness, put to the test, examine”; “to draw a conclusion about worth on the basis of testing, prove, approve” (BDAG; see also 1 Thess. 5:21). How do we test these spirits? For Christians back then, it was apostolic teachings, both in letters and oral traditions, as the apostles taught about Jesus.

For us today, it is apostolic teaching in Scripture. So distinguishing of spirits should be Bible-based. It may be objected that testing is not the same as distinguishing, and no, they are not identical, but they overlap. They are synonyms. Believers can sharpen their discernment skills by knowing Scripture, for it keeps them from going too far astray and confusing their own faculties with the gift of the Spirit.

In discerning human spirits, it is sometimes—just sometimes—important to understand whether we are dealing with a spirit of anger, depression, violence, and so on. People have dispositions that need healing and repair through the power of the Spirit.

Fourth, and now for demonic spirits.

Jesus discerned that an evil spirit caused muteness on a man, and the Lord cast it out, so the man was delivered and spoke (Matt. 9:32-33).

Jesus cast out a demon that caused muteness and blindness, and the man spoke and saw (Matt. 12:22-23).

Please note, however. Not all sickness is caused by demons. You need discernment to understand when the cause is natural or demonic!

See my post about that discusses briefly demons causing illness: Satan and Demons: Personal

1 Tim. 4:1 says that some will depart from the faith and will follow deceitful spirits and doctrines of demons. That is a heavy verse because evil spirits can infiltrate the church and deceive people. I call on all pastors and teachers to follow sound doctrines and not be the conduit through whom the deception comes. Sound doctrine is found in the plain teachings of Scripture. Keep the plain things the main things. Be careful of distracting Bible codes and secret teachings. Be especially vigilant about the person and ministry of Jesus. Because he was both God and man, people are susceptible to interpreting him falsely or partly falsely and partly truly.

Please see my post:

7. Do I Really Know Jesus? Thirty Truths about His Life

How does this post help me grow closer to Jesus?

To speak personally, I have been attacked by a spirit of despair—different from my own disposition. I could go on about this attack, but that’s good enough for now. I had to “fight like Jesus.” I laid aside my intellect (for a change) and learned key Scriptures and filled my mind with them, just like Jesus did when he used Scripture to rebuke Satan during the temptation (Matt. 4; Luke 4). My Scripture that I pray out loud every day is Eph. 6:16—I proclaim a shield of faith over my mind, and the shield quenches the fiery arrows of the enemy. It works!

It is possible to exercise the gift of discerning good and evil (Heb. 5:14). But keep your exercise Bible-based. Keep the plain things the main things.


Bible Basics about Satan and Demons and Victory Over Them

Satan and Demons: Personal

Satan and Demons: Theology

Satan and Demons: Origins

Bible Basics about Deliverance

Magic, Witchcraft, Sorcery, and Fortunetelling

What Is the ‘Anointing’?


1. Gifts of Spirit: Word of Wisdom

2. Gifts of the Spirit: Word of Knowledge

3. Gifts of the Spirit: Faith

4. Gifts of the Spirit: Gifts of Healings

5. Gifts of the Spirit: Workings of Miracles

6. Gifts of the Spirit: Prophecy

7. Gifts of the Spirit: Discernings of Spirits

8. Gifts of the Spirit: Spirit-Inspired Languages (‘Tongues’)

9. Gifts of the Spirit: Interpretation of Spirit-Inspired Languages


Works Cited

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