What is the gift of distinguishing of spirits?

More on spiritual gifts: I asked the question in prior blog entries on whether the spiritual gifts that were given as a sign are ceased now. (tongues, interpretation of tongues, miracles, healing). I came to the conclusion that scripture seems to say they are concluded.

There are many other permanent, edifying spiritual gifts that remain to this day.  The spiritual gifts are endowments given by the Holy Spirit.  As Theology professor Wayne Grudem says, "these are the supernatural graces which individual Christians need to fulfill the mission of the church." I won't take time to do a series on all of them, better scholars than me have weighed in on explaining them. However today I do want to look at one particular gift, though: distinguishing of spirits.

Here is the verse from 1 Corinthians 12:10 in several different translations:

"to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another the ability to distinguish between spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues." (ESV)

"To another the working of miracles; to another prophecy; to another discerning of spirits; to another divers kinds of tongues; to another the interpretation of tongues:" (KJV)

"He gives one person the power to perform miracles, and another the ability to prophesy. He gives someone else the ability to discern whether a message is from the Spirit of God or from another spirit. Still another person is given the ability to speak in unknown languages, while another is given the ability to interpret what is being said." (NLT)

The word for distinguishing in Greek is diakrisis, and it means an act of judgment. Not the kind of judgment in court, but "properly, a thorough judgment, i.e. a discernment (conclusion) which distinguishes "look-alikes," i.e. things that appear to be the same" goes the definition from Strong's. (source)

Pastor Charles Spurgeon once said that "discernment is not simply a matter of telling the difference between what is right and wrong; rather it is the difference between right and almost right."

In the bible one example of the gift of distinguishing of spirits was when Peter was able to tell instantly when both Ananias and Sapphira were lying to him and thus to the Holy Spirit.

"But a man named Ananias, with his wife Sapphira, sold a piece of property, 2and with his wife’s knowledge he kept back for himself some of the proceeds and brought only a part of it and laid it at the apostles’ feet. 3But Peter said, “Ananias, why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and to keep back for yourself part of the proceeds of the land? 4While it remained unsold, did it not remain your own? And after it was sold, was it not at your disposal? Why is it that you have contrived this deed in your heart? You have not lied to men but to God.” 5When Ananias heard these words, he fell down and breathed his last. And great fear came upon all who heard of it. (Acts 5:1-5)

How did Peter know? Ananias had made a claim, and there doesn't seem to have been enough time to pass for Peter to have heard any different from other sources...except from the Holy Spirit. And the exact same thing happened when Ananias's wife Sapphira came in three hours later and laid some money down. She also claimed it was the full amount. Peter pronounced her death and immediately she fell down and breathed her last. (Acts 5:7-10).

Paul had the same thing happen, and the gift of discerning of spirits manifested itself in a way that showed him though the girl was saying something truthful, was at root an evil from a demon.

"As we were going to the place of prayer, we were met by a slave girl who had a spirit of divination and brought her owners much gain by fortune-telling. 17She followed Paul and us, crying out, “These men are servants of the Most High God, who proclaim to you the way of salvation.” 18And this she kept doing for many days. Paul, having become greatly annoyed, turned and said to the spirit, “I command you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her.” And it came out that very hour. (Acts 16:16-18)

The Holy Spirit had given Paul and Peter the ability to discern if what the person was saying was a lie or the truth, or was a half-truth, or was truth but was from an evil spirit.

We all have a certain amount of discernment. We should practice it, pray for it, and be diligent about it. As we grow in our faith, we employ the discernment knowledge we have gained as we strive with the Spirit. But there are other people who have been given a gift of discerning the spirits. These people seem to be able to tell earlier that something is false. They are ahead of the curve so to speak.

The men at GotQuestions tell us:
"There are certain individuals, however, who have the God-given ability to distinguish between the truth of the Scriptures and erroneous and deceptive doctrines propagated by demons. Although we are all exhorted to be spiritually discerning (Acts 17:11; 1 John 4:1), some in the body of Christ have been given the unique ability to “spot” the forgeries in doctrine that have plagued the church since the first century. But this does not involve a mystical, extra-biblical revelation or a voice from God. Rather, the spiritually discerning among us are so familiar with the Word of God that they instantly recognize what is contrary to it. They do not receive special messages from God; they use the Word of God to “test the spirits” to see which line up with God and which are in opposition to Him. The spiritually discerning are those who “rightly divide” (2 Timothy 2:15) the Word of God in a thoughtful and diligent manner."

John MacArthur on 1 Cor 12:10, on how the discerning spirits verse manifests itself today says,
"This kind of gifted Christian can intuitively identify truth from error, hypocrisy from genuineness, and false prophets are everywhere today and I believe there are some people who are gifted by God to unmask false prophets. I think some of them write books. I think some of the people who have done good work in the cults and in the occult may be exercising the gift of discernment, the capacity to see through something to the core of its hypocrisy."
The gift of discernment of spirits is a gift the Spirit has given to me. So, how does a person with this gift use it? How is the church edified by proper use of a gift of discerning the spirits?

MacArthur again:
"The gift can be exercised in many ways. Let me just share what possibly could be the use of it today. It could be used to reveal demonism in any form, any form. It could be used to reveal false prophets and spiritual phony's. This person can spot a spiritual phony without missing, usually. Sometimes someone say to me, "You better not put that person in such a such position. You'd better not have that person come to your church and do, because something's not right, protecting the church. I think the gift can even be used to see the intrusion of carnal elements into worship. The gift can discern one in whom the Holy Spirit is genuinely working. The same person will often say to me, "You know there's a person really energized by the Spirit of God. I can see it." They are the watchmen of the church.

Tim Challies wrote a book on discernment. He said, "This is not merely a gift, but a responsibility."

You shouldn't accumulate knowledge just for the sake of knowledge. Once you know something is true or false, you have a responsibility to do something about it. You have a responsibility to praise the Savior if you find a true teaching, but if you find a false teaching you have to say something about it, as well.

I tell my fellows at church that I am a carbon monoxide alarm. Carbon monoxide gas is poisonous and odorless. It kills, but people only detect its presence when they start to feel sleepy and even then it may be too late. False doctrine is like that, odorless, undetectable except for some symptoms that appear in people who are under its influence. If you detect a false teaching, or an evil spirit at work or a carnality creeping in, or whatever it may be as MacArthur outlined, DO something. What I do is speak to my pastor or the teacher of the class. I make a report. I tell the men, right away. I let them know what I found, how I found it, where I found it, and the methods I used to find it. This is so they can check for themselves. I also offer the scriptural foundation that in my opinion shows the teaching or carnal thing is false so they can compare it to the Word. If they deem it false, my prayer next becomes that they do something about it and therefore it will not be tolerated.

Remember the condemnation of the church at Thyatira. The people were tolerating a false prophetess. Jesus was unhappy about that. (Revelation 2:20). If you discern something is off somewhere, you have a responsibility to speak up about it.

It isn't an easy ministry. I don't go looking for falsity. The blogs that have a badge on their top menu bar "member of heresy hunters" or some such...I disagree with that. I don't spend my time hunting evil. I spend my time hunting good. There is too much evil to keep up with and it always finds me anyway. Instead, I try to stay on the center line of the narrow road of His goodness by listening to sermons, praising Jesus, learning the word, exhorting about Him everywhere I go.

Sometimes in other places or in other churches when I did make a report on this or that, my report was rejected summarily without prayer or consultation to the scriptures. Sometimes I was identified as a bad influence rather than the false doctrine being bad. Shooting the messenger does happen. Poor Jeremiah, thrown into a nearly bottomless cistern... That is why having the gift of discernment of spirits is a responsibility and not an intellectual game and not a personal playground. It comes with consequences, sometimes.

Challies said,
"Satan and his spirits can be discerned in appearance. Satan invades the Christian community with teachers and leaders who counterfeit the truth. These people will always introduce teaching that is foreign to Scripture. ... Though her [the slave girl's] words were true, the spirit behind them was false and sought to lure people with a little bit of truth so that the opportunity could be used to heap reproach upon the gospel."
And there is the nut of it. Whether you don't have the specific gift but are maturing in your faith and gaining discernment, or you do have the spiritual gift of distinguishing spirits, not bringing reproach on the Gospel is the goal. Jesus is to be uplifted, always. It is HIS Gospel, it is HIS church, it is HIS doctrine. So even though the responsibility is heavy, the joy is wonderful when the body works together to maintain a level of purity in a local church. It is joy when we see the melding of the separate gifts result in something pleasing to the One who delivered us from the evil that we are now reporting and protecting the fellow sheep from.

In some cases, the sheep never even knew that a creeping poison almost touched them. They are happily ministering and functioning in their spiritual gifts unknowingly protected from yet another foray by satan. Praise the Lord for mature churches where all gifts of the body work together to edify His congregation and exalt Jesus, the ultimate goal of any church!


  1. My name is Alison.
    I have enjoyed reading many of your posts. I am not one to post comment much. But I just have to say it grieves me that you are missing out on so much that the Lord intended you to have. And I speak here of the gifts of the Holy Spirit. I was raised to believe that they were not for us today. I am now in the position of operating in those gifts and hearing Gods' voice like I never used to although I was a sincere, Bible reading believer.
    I want to draw your attention to how you have taken one gift. That of discerning of spirits, and allowed that this one is for today but all the others mentioned in the same verse of scripture are somehow not.
    Could I urge you to look at all these others and see them not only as operating but absolutely essential to empowering the church for service. The bible is the inspired word of the Almighty God. But the Holy Spirit is a person of the trinity which we have been sent to help us. He operates the gifts in us if we decide to accept them. The Lord is a gentleman. He does not force anything upon us that we don't want or believe. The fact that they are so abused and rejected today is in need of close examination. If Satan can blind eyes to the truth, he will. That these gifts have been the subject of such division and abuse just goes to show how much he wants to keep them out of the church. I intend to pray that you will embrace all that God has for you, and ask Him to show you if you are missing out. I had to do this eventually as I was shown the fulness of the Holy Spirit in operation in some of the family I married into. I knew these people and knew also that they were genuine and something genuine had happened to them that I could no longer deny. I found myself having to ask the Lord to show me if I had it wrong.
    May God bless you and keep you and guide you into all truth. You certainly have a discerning eye and ear in some areas. Ask Him to speak to you in this one and I guarantee He will.
    Once again, God bless

    1. Hi ALison,

      Thanks for your comment. I had recently done a series on the spiritual gifts that were given for a sign (tongues, interpretation of tongues, miracles and healings) and in a three part series showed how those particular gifts that were given as a sign to authenticate the apostles as being from the Lord are finished now. The church's foundation is built, so there no longer needs to be authenticating signs. The bible is closed and we refer to that now.

      That three part series is here

      part 1-

      part 2

      part 3

      In this essay, I looked at one of the SEVERAL remaining, permanent, edifying gifts: discerning of spirits. I encourage you to read the three part series that is scripturally based and see if you don't end up also agreeing that the gifts that were given as a sign are ceased, indeed, as Paul said they would stop, in 1 Cor 13:8. God bless you as well :)

    2. I agree with Allison. You can say all you want to about how its not for today but i know it is. It is up to the Holy spirit what gifts you get but know for a fact that people still have all of the spiritual gifts talked about in the bible. Its sad that people want to limit what god is capable of in their lives. I have seen them in action so to say that they were not for this time is a mistake. God bless

    3. Hi Jen,

      I appreciate your ferocity in saying the that the miracle gifts are still going. However, saying "I know for a fact" isn't the best kind of way to contend for the faith... The bible is our only standard. Experiencing something doesn't make it a fact. Remember, satan counterfeits miracles. (Exodus 7:8-11; Matthew 24:24, 2 Thessalonians 2:9)

      Though God is capable of anything, it doesn't mean we are limiting Him by saying the sign gifts have ceased. Paul told us they would and it seems they did. The writer of Hebrews said that in these days God spoke by His son. No more signs. (Hebrews 1:1-2)

      Jen, I encourage you to read the three part essays with the scriptures and let me know where in the bible in context you interpret the miracles, tongues, interpretation of tongues, and healings to still be continuing.

  2. Thanks for posting this. I have been told and discovered through "spiritual inventories" on multiple occasions that this was my gift. I made an appt. with my pastor once and asked...so what do I do with it? He didn't really know what to tell me. But I find myself constantly warning people about different things spiritually. Often they (politely) ignore me, then come back later and tell me I was right in my warning. As you said, I do not search for heretics... something always brings them to my attention and I just get a powerful feeling something is wrong. I know it is a supernatural gift, because then I have to go do the research and find what the problem is, and it always backs up that "feeling" I had to start with.

    I have also had the same ability with certain doctrinal ideas. In my first church I knew nothing of the Bible but I probably drove my elders crazy because I would ask them-how do you know this teaching is true? Something doesn't seem right. So then I would search the scripture and find it didn't mesh with the teaching. That can only be God, because I did not have the knowledge to know one way from another.

    I have met very few others like myself, so articles like this help me process in my mind what is going on. Still though within a church setting it is hard to know how to apply yourself.



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