The Celtic Monks Practiced a Bible-Based Discernment of Morals
Recently I was overjoyed at discovering a chapter on spiritual discernment in “The Rule for Monks” by Columbanus in the Paulist Press anthology called Celtic Spirituality. Columbanus–not to be confused with St. Columba–was an Irish monk in the 6th century. When I read chapter 8 of his rule, simply titled “On Discernment,” it ministered confirmation to my spirit. In short, this teacher of Celtic monks said, that true spiritual discernment is based on Biblical morals and ethics. These are summed up in passages such as Galatians 5:22-23: “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.”
The Moral Commandments of the Bible:
The Christian’s Guide for Spiritual Discernment
A Christian is meant to distinguish between good and evil (Heb. 5:14)–and when necessary, pass judgment on evil. Whereas the “fruit of the Spirit” provides a list of virtues (or morals)–character traits to pursue with God’s help–the “works of the flesh” provide a list of vices (or sins) in Galatians 5:19-21: “The acts of the sinful nature are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions, and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like.” This passage in Galatians 5:19-23 is essential for spiritual discernment, but it is not the end-all. It is merely a brief summary of the morals and sins of Old Testament law. Paul’s letter to the Galatians was written with the Old Testament law in mind. But he was warning the Galatian church to avoid Judaistic legalism–which a group of heretics called “Judaizers” were teaching. Paul said that Christians are only obligated to obey or live by the ethical morals of God’s commandments–and not by Jewish ceremonies, rites, and customs–such as circumcision, Sabbath-keeping, Jewish holidays, and kosher foods (Col. 2:16). The Christian life is to break away from such Biblical laws, because they only applied to Jews during the Old Testament days (1250 B.C. – A.D. 30).
Salvation by Faith in Christ,
But Consciousness of Sin Through God’s Law
Now, in these New Testament days (A.D. 30 – Present)–Christians are justified by a simple faith in Christ–and are not saved by Jewish law-keeping (Gal. 3:23-25). But this doesn’t mean that God’s moral rules are meaningless. The moral commandments of God still have a great purpose in the Christian life! Their purpose is not to save men from Hell–that is accomplished by a simple faith in Christ’s atoning sacrifice on the cross (Rom. 3:23-25). But today, the purpose of the moral commandments of the Bible is to raise men’s consciousness of sin–as Paul said: “Through the law we become conscious of sin” (Rom. 3:20).
Once We Know God’s Moral Laws,
The Holy Spirit Helps Us to Live by Them
In Romans 7, Paul explains that human nature is corrupt and tends to sin against God’s law (v. 23). But then he explains in Romans 7:24-8:4, that the Holy Spirit dwelling in his heart–which he received by a simple faith in Christ–helps him supernaturally to overcome his naturally sinful tendencies (8:4). This is good news! This is the Gospel! This experience is one of the greatest benefits of faith in Christ, and was prophesied by Jeremiah, as one of the distinguishing marks of the New Testament Christian life: “I will put My laws in their minds and write them on their hearts” (Jer. 31:33; Heb. 8:10). And by reading these very laws in the Bible–especially as they are mentioned in the New Testament–it serves the purpose of raising our dim minds and hearts to a clearer consciousness of sin (Rom. 3:20), “in order that the righteous requirements of the law might be fully met in us, who do not live according to the sinful nature but according to the Spirit” (Rom. 8:4).
Growing in Holiness and Grace Towards Others
This is about sanctification or growing in holiness. It doesn’t have to do with being saved from Hell at all. It has to do with progressively growing holier over the course of time–and this involves seeing sin in yourself, and seeing sin in others (Matt. 7:1-5). But, as you should very well know from the “Romans 7 experience,” it is hard to live perfectly righteous–because the good forces of the Holy Spirit and the evil forces within your body, make it a struggle to live righteously. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try (with God’s help through prayer), but that we grow by showing grace to others because we understand how hard it is to live an ethical life (2 Pet. 3:18). “If it is hard for the righteous to be saved, what will become of the ungodly and the sinner?” (1 Pet. 4:18).
Christians Should Judge Great Sins, But Not Small Sins
There is a time and place to judge and speak out against sin. This should only be done when the matter is very serious, and the sin is very great. Jesus spoke of those who had committed “a greater sin” (John 19:11)–which implies that He held some sins to be greater than others. If Christians are cautious to only judge great sins, then they will avoid the demonic trap of becoming nitpicky, accusatory, judgmental, legalistic, and generally difficult to get along with. The peace of God does not abide with nitpicky people. On matters of the conscience (small moral issues), they should not judge their fellow Christians or anyone else (Rom. 14). They should allow for some flexibility among their Christian brothers and sisters with regards to small moral issues and trifles. But on big moral issues–the Spirit of God may very well lead a Christian to judge another. This is what the Bible calls “discernment” and “righteous judgment” (1 Cor. 12:10; John 7:24). This is contrasted with the “hypocritical/nitpicky judgment” that Jesus spoke against in Matthew 7:1-5. This was when He said, “Judge not, lest ye be judged.” But take note of the context–He was speaking of judging by nitpicky traditions and human opinions among the Jews (John 7:24). This happens when religious church people judge others by the clothes they wear, etiquette standards, etc. Jesus says that is hypocritical, and that people should rather “judge righteously”–according to Biblical morals, and not by nitpicky religious or non-religious rules and traditions made up by men.
Mystical and Prophetic Discernment is Based on Biblical Morals
So, God’s moral commandments in the Bible (not Jewish rites and ceremonial customs)–but the morals of Scripture–this is the rule for spiritual discernment. Columbanus the Irish monk taught this in the 6th century. Why does this matter? Because Columbanus was not a rationalistic Protestant preacher from First Baptist Church. Columbanus and the Celtic monks were prophetic seers and miracle workers. But they didn’t get to that level of spiritual power without using some Bible-based discernment of morals. DREAMS AND VISIONS are great–if they’re from God! MIRACLES AND MYSTICAL EXPERIENCES are great–if they’re from God! But how can we know for sure what is of God and the devil? By discerning between good and evil according to the Bible–that’s how to judge revelations and spiritual experiences. Discernment is all about Biblical morals.