“DISCERN BETWEEN THE RIGHTEOUS AND THE WICKED”
Turn to the last book of the Old Testament, the book of Malachi. I would like for us to begin reading at Malachi 3.13. Please stand, and we will read together Malachi 3.13-18: "Your words have been stout against me, saith the LORD. Yet ye say, What have we spoken so much against thee? Ye have said, It is vain to serve God: and what profit is it that we have kept his ordinance, and that we have walked mournfully before the LORD of hosts? And now we call the proud happy; yea, they that work wickedness are set up; yea, they that tempt God are even delivered. Then they that feared the LORD spake often one to another: and the LORD hearkened, and heard it, and a book of remembrance was written before him for them that feared the LORD, and that thought upon his name. And they shall be mine, saith the LORD of hosts, in that day when I make up my jewels; and I will spare them, as a man spareth his own son that serveth him. Then shall ye return, and discern between the righteous and the wicked, between him that serveth God and him that serveth him not."
Malachi was written about 425 years before the birth of Christ, during a very dark period in Jewish history. It had been about 12 centuries since the children of Israel were delivered from Egyptian slavery and brought into the Promised Land. But since then, with the notable exceptions of kings David, Solomon, Hezekiah and Josiah, there had been an almost continual national and spiritual downhill slide throughout their history. Almost 200 years before Malachi’s time the Babylonian army had laid siege to Jerusalem, leveling the city and taking almost the entire population of those not slain in battle or starved to death into captivity. What dark days those had been.
It had seemed like a marvelous dream for the captivity to end after 70 years, just as Jeremiah had predicted. Psalm 126 records the mood of the people: "When the LORD turned again the captivity of Zion, we were like them that dream. Then was our mouth filled with laughter, and our tongue with singing: then said they among the heathen, The LORD hath done great things for them. The LORD hath done great things for us; whereof we are glad." But profound discouragement set in when only 50,000 Jews actually chose to return to the Promised Land. How could they rebuild without more people? The efforts of Ezra, Nehemiah and several others raised up by God helped somewhat, but the situation was still extremely bleak. Things seemed dismal beyond belief in the land. The Temple had been rebuilt, but it was a shabby and cheap imitation of the glorious original Temple built by Solomon. The priesthood had been restored and sacrifices were being offered, but the priests were corrupt and complacent. The people had no respect for them.
Any objective observer could tell that the people had already sunk to a depth of sin that exceeded the former iniquities which had brought on the judgment of God by first the Assyrians and then the Babylonians. Would the people learn nothing from the past? It seemed as though they would not. Because the limitations of time prevent me from painting for you a full landscape of the history that lay back of our text, allow me to lift from those verses that we have read four thoughts, the last of which forms the basis of my sermon this morning.
First, in Malachi 3.16, mention is made of "those who feared the LORD" speaking often to one another. What an encouragement. In the midst of spiritual apostasy and barrenness God had preserved for Himself a remnant. And they seemed to have an awareness of each other, since they "spake often one to another: and the LORD hearkened, and heard it." I would venture a guess that prayer meetings might be implied by this, and God listened to their prayers. Second, also in Malachi 3.16, we are told that "a book of remembrance was written before him," which is to say before God, "for them that feared the LORD, and that thought upon His name." Mention is oftentimes made of the books God keeps in heaven, in which records are kept of the sins and the wickedness of the unsaved, which will be used to judge them in the end, Revelation 20.12. But here we are told that God keeps records, also, of the deeds of those who are His Own. So, God listens to prayers and God remembers what you’ve done for Him . . . if you are His child. If not, He remembers what you have done against Him.
Now look at verse 17: "And they shall be mine, saith the LORD of hosts, in that day when I make up my jewels; and I will spare them, as a man spareth his own son that serveth him." A quick glance at this verse shows that God is referring to future blessings for the people. And how that must have lifted the spirits of Malachi’s readers in that time of darkness and discouragement. So, in a few short verses, in the middle of this prophet’s writing that shows God’s extreme displeasure with the Jewish people as a whole, we have seen that there is a remnant, that God does remember them, that His reference to future blessing must have rejuvenated them to a degree, and then the narrative changes. Malachi was speaking in verse 16. Then God spoke in verse 17. And now Malachi is speaking again in verse 18. What does the prophet of God make mention of here? He declares that God will return to the midst of His people. "Then shall ye return, and discern between the righteous and the wicked, between him that serveth God and him that serveth him not."
You see, God did dwell in the midst of His people, when His glory hovered over the mercy seat in the Holy of Holies inside the Temple, during that time before the Babylonian captivity. And, yes, He would come back into the midst of His people. He would return. But little did the people realize that to return God, specifically the Son of God, would enter the womb of a virgin named Mary, take upon Himself human flesh, and be born a Savior, which is Christ the Lord. However, that which I want to draw your undivided attention to this morning is the phrase "discern between the righteous and the wicked." My friends, I fully realize that when God discerns between the righteous and the wicked He discerns with infallible insight. First Samuel 16.7 informs us that "man looketh on the outward appearance, but the LORD looketh on the heart." So, we acknowledge that we cannot look upon men’s hearts to discern the righteous from the wicked. But let us not forget that Jesus told us, in Matthew 7.16, "Ye shall know them by their fruits." And moments later, in Matthew 7.20, He repeated Himself, saying, "Wherefore by their fruits ye shall know them."
I believe it to be a trick of the Devil to convince people that it is not possible to discern between the righteous and the wicked, with some degree of certainty. It is a Satanic lie to assert that there is no discernible difference between the saved and the lost. So, keeping in mind that human beings are not by any means without error in our judgments, my sermon will be on the subject of discerning between the righteous and the wicked.
"Discern between the righteous and the wicked." This word "discern" translates a very common Hebrew word that simply means to see, therefore to perceive. Though it is an art that has long since fallen into disuse, in my reading I have discovered that it was the common practice of every single gospel preaching pastor in the English speaking world, before 1800, to take steps to discern between the righteous and the wicked by carefully interviewing professing Christians and questioning them for their views on what truths they believe and how they were supposedly saved.
I was surprised to learn that hopeful converts were subjected to scrutiny in an effort to establish some degree of certainty that they really did possess eternal life in Christ. When such a hopeful convert could satisfy his pastor that it was likely that he was, indeed, truly converted, he was then baptized.
"You mean you decide whether or not some person gets baptized, or whether or not some person is allowed to join the church?" That was the question that was put to me some time ago. "Somebody has to decide," I told the startled visitor, "and we’re certainly not going to let you decide." As a physician does not prescribe medication simply because a desire is expressed by a patient, and as a dentist does not drill a tooth just because a patient tells him he needs a filling, so a pastor must engage in the serious task of discerning between the righteous and the wicked, and cannot responsibly baptize a candidate just because she wants to be baptized, or receive into the church’s membership someone who wants to transfer just because he expresses a strong desire.
Attorneys interview and cross examine. Police officers interrogate and investigate. Military intelligence officers gather data and debrief. Physicians and dentists take case histories and examine. Scientists investigate and interview and examine. But in a matter that is infinitely more important than the urgent tasks those professionals are engaged in the pastor is supposed to rely on hearsay?
Because I am a fallible man I cannot be absolutely certain when I seek to discern between the righteous and the wicked, but I would be a fool, I would be negligent, I would be unfaithful, if I did not do my very best in dealing with you folks in the best way I know how.
I will share with you four truths related to discerning between the righteous and the wicked.
THERE IS A DIFFERENCE BETWEEN THE RIGHTEOUS AND THE WICKED
It seems preposterous to have to assert this truth, but in these days of ecumenical evangelism and Pentecostal and Charismatic confusion it is lost on many people that there is a difference between the righteous and the wicked. So, the point must be made in two ways:
First, there is a difference with respect o the Lord Jesus Christ. The righteous man has received Christ, while the wicked man has rejected Christ. The righteous man has responded to the gospel of Jesus Christ, while the wicked man has refused the offer of the gospel. The righteous has trusted, while the wicked has tempered. The righteous has fallen upon Jesus in faith, while the wicked has faltered and feigned. Not to doubt for one moment that the wicked may sincerely believe himself to be saved, but there is a difference between deliverance and delusion. There is a difference between life and license. There is a difference between grace and mere grasping with the arm of flesh. To be righteous is to be clothed in the righteousness of Jesus Christ, not any righteousness of your own, not any merit you may think you have. Thus, when some pretender of a Christian is questioned and challenged regarding his faith in Christ, it is his belligerence, it is his outrage, it is his offense, which betrays him as one who is not wholly leaning on Jesus, but who has attempted to convince himself and others that he is converted, when in fact he is seeking to earn what only Jesus provides freely.
Second, there is a difference with respect to every spiritual blessing derived from Jesus Christ. The righteous abides in the kingdom of God’s dear Son, while the wicked abides still in the power of darkness, Colossians 1.13. The righteous is indwelt by the Spirit of Christ, Romans 8.9, while the wicked is no place of habitation for the Holy Spirit of God. The righteous has a destiny in heaven awaiting him, and is even now seated with Christ in the heavenlies in some mysterious way, Ephesians 2.6, while for the wicked there is no hope, Ephesians 2.12, with only Hell and everlasting punishment awaiting him. These are only a few of the great and profound differences that exist between the righteous and the wicked, which could be so easily seen if we had only the senses to perceive spiritual realities directly, as our eyes see and our ears hear and our noses smell.
THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN THE RIGHTEOUS AND THE WICKED CAN BE DETECTED
As I said before, it is a great trick of the Devil to convince both the righteous and the wicked that the difference that exists between the two is not discernible. To be sure, there are some wicked whose abilities to deceive and to lie and to camouflage make it difficult, sometimes even impossible, to detect them. But no department store gives up on trying to catch shoplifters because they have no hope of catching them all. The highway patrol does not cease to patrol for drunk drivers on New Year’s Eve because they have no hope of catching all of them. So what kind of flawed logic is used to decry the attempt to discern between the righteous and the wicked simply because the means available to us are not innerrant?
Let me establish for you that the difference between the righteous and the wicked is great enough that very frequently proper distinction between the saved and the lost can be made.
First, the Lord Jesus Christ indicated the difference between the righteous and wicked could be detected. You who say that no one can tell between the saved and the lost. Why don’t you suggest how we are to take the words of the Lord Jesus Christ? Jesus told us, in Matthew 7.16, "Ye shall know them by their fruits." What did He mean by that if He did not mean that a person’s behavior was an excellent means of discerning whether he is saved or lost? And how about Matthew 7.20, where He repeated Himself, saying, "Wherefore by their fruits ye shall know them"? You say no one can tell. You assert that discernment is impossible. Okay, then just what did Jesus mean with these words? Tell us, or stop your objections.
Second, the Apostle Paul indicated that a Christian could discern that he was saved and not lost, in Second Corinthians 13.5-6: "Examine yourselves, whether ye be in the faith; prove your own selves. Know ye not your own selves, how that Jesus Christ is in you, except ye be reprobates? But I trust that ye shall know that we are not reprobates." Here Paul calls upon the Christians in the Corinthian Church to examine themselves, and to examine him, as well. What were they to determine? Whether or not they were in the faith, to discern between the righteous and the wicked. And Paul expresses confidence in their capacity to make such a determination, even though we can be sure that he did not expect 100% accuracy in such determinations. After all, Paul himself was aware of the wicked who temporarily succeeded in deceiving careful ministers of the Gospel, only later to expose themselves as frauds. So, there can be no doubt that the difference between the righteous and the wicked can be detected, can be discerned by someone who is skilled, who is discerning, and who merely seeks to discern the difference.
AND THIS IS GOOD BECAUSE CHRISTIANS ARE COMMANDED TO DETECT THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN THE RIGHTEOUS AND THE WICKED
This is one of the most powerful arguments against those doubters who deny that a skilled and mature minister of the gospel can become discerning in such matters as these. Think about it, friend. If no one could tell the difference between the righteous and the wicked, if discernment was not possible, what hope could a Christian have of obeying God in the following two areas of life?
First, the Christian ts forbidden to marry someone who is unsaved. Granted, it is possible for someone to be blinded by love and fooled by stubbornness and stupidity. I myself once performed a marriage in which the groom intentionally, and with malice aforethought, deceived both me and the bride into thinking that he was a Christian. But such experiences do not deny the reality of God’s commands and of God’s enablement to execute His commands. Second Corinthians 6.14: "Be ye not unequally yoked together with unbelievers." My friend, every Christian in the world who gets married is doomed to disobedience to God unless some means are available to the sincere Christian to discern whether or not he or she is marrying an unbeliever. God would not leave His child with such a dilemma.
Second, churches are commanded to baptize converts. The tragic fact that I have so many times failed to discern between the righteous and the wicked before plunging them into the baptismal waters does not at all mean that such discernment is not possible. And on what scriptural basis is the man of God supposed to baptize someone just because he wants to be baptized? Are we not Baptists here? Do we not adhere to the centuries old Baptist credo of insisting on a regenerate membership? But how do I insure a regenerate membership if I insist on baptizing just anyone who claims to be saved, which I admit to having all too frequently done in the past? Does a sinner necessarily get saved because he said the sinner’s prayer? And what if the guy sincerely trusted christ, but the christ he trusted is not the Jesus Christ of the Bible, but some Mormon Christ, or some Unitarian christ? It happens, people. Especially here in southern California, it happens. Do you believe the Bible? The Bible declares that the sinner’s heart is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked, Jeremiah 17.9. Do you believe that? If you believe that a sinner’s heart is deceitful above all things, and if you believe a sinner’s heart is desperately wicked, what justification do you have of baptizing some sinner who claims he just got saved, and before he has been thoroughly examined? In the Great Commission of our Lord Jesus Christ we are commanded to baptize converts. Who in the world among us would deny that it’s only converts we are to baptize, and that it does great harm to baptize someone who is lost? At least great harm was done in my life when I was baptized as a lost teen. There is a difference between the righteous and the wicked. The difference between the righteous and the wicked can be detected. The difference between the righteous and the wicked has to be detected in order to obey God.
BUT, YOU ARE NOT CAPABLE OF DETECTING THE DIFFERENCE
I say this because it is irresponsible for me to assume that you are one who is righteous until I have satisfied myself that you are not one who is wicked. And before you indicate that Paul said people are to examine themselves to see whether or not they are in the faith, let me remind you that he stated that directive to people who were believers, most of whom he had personally guided to Christ and carefully scrutinized to assure himself that they were truly converted.
Think about this, my friend. The issue before us is the salvation of your eternal soul. If you are truly converted you have nothing to lose by subjecting yourself to a careful examination of your testimony, giving an answer for the hope that lies within you, as Peter commanded for all Christians. But what if you are deluded, self deceived, blinded by the god of this world? What you are about to decide may be the most important decision of your entire life.
Let me explain to you why you are likely not competent to examine yourself:
Hebrews 5.12-14: "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. For every one that useth milk is unskilful in the word of righteousness: for he is a babe. But strong meat belongeth to them that are of full age, even those who by reason of use have their senses exercised to discern both good and evil." Are you skillful in the use of Scripture? Have you both read the Bible through numerous times and studied it for many thousands of hours? If you have not so studied God’s Word, and if you have not been taught by a competent Bible teacher (Titus 1.9), you can’t really discern good and evil according to this passage, much less discern between the righteous and the wicked. You don’t want a butcher to perform open heart surgery on you do you, even though the butcher knows his way around a carcass? I didn’t think so.
First Corinthians 2.14-15: "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. But he that is spiritual judgeth all things." A lost man, like you, is spiritually dead, estranged from God, without any love for God, not seeking God, having no fear of God. As well, according to these two verses, you are incapable of spiritual insight. The spiritual man, on the other hand, which is to say the man who is indwelt by the Holy Spirit of God and enabled to serve Christ by that same Spirit, is capable of judging all things; is capable of discerning things. I speak, of course, of your very experienced pastor, the man who is charged with the watch care over your soul, Hebrews 13.17.
Do you believe in coincidences? I do not. I believe in God, "who worketh all things after the counsel of his own will." Whether you are a visitor this morning or someone who first came to church here as a child, you are here by divine appointment. You are here for a reason. My hope is that you are here to be preached to, to be carefully dealt with in an attempt to discern your true spiritual condition, and to really and truly come to Jesus Christ for forgiveness, for cleansing, for eternal life.
I am no priest. I am not a mediator. I do not reconcile sinners to God. Only Jesus does that, and He does that when a sinner simply comes to Him by faith.
I say this because, if you are lost you are spiritually dead, Ephesians 2.1. If you are lost you are without Christ, without God, and without hope, Ephesians 2.12. But God, Who is rich in mercy, has made it possible for you to come nigh by the blood of Jesus Christ. The preaching is done. The sermonizing has concluded. What is needful now is to listen to sinners who are interested in coming to Jesus, who are curious about salvation, who are burdened to have their sins forgiven.