One of the failings of many professed believers is that they depend completely upon their spiritual leaders for their awareness of what is right and wrong in the practice of their faith. They do not personally know the details of scripture, and are unable on their own to state the biblical basis for the things they believe and practice. This is commonly demonstrated when they are asked about some passage of scripture, or about some essential doctrine of faith, and their reply is, “I’ll have to ask my pastor.” It is commendable that they are concerned enough to ask for guidance, but the expectation of scripture is that each Christian should know God’s word well enough to be able to tell the difference between what is acceptable to God and what is not.
This truth was expressed by the writer of Hebrews when he chastised his readers because they were still subsisting on the milk of the word. In Heb. 5:11-14 he said, “Concerning him we have much to say, and it is hard to explain, since you have become dull of hearing. For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you have need again for someone to teach you the elementary principles of the oracles of God, and you have come to need milk and not solid food. For everyone who partakes only of milk is not accustomed to the word of righteousness, for he is an infant. But solid food is for the mature, who because of practice have their senses trained to discern good and evil.”
It is clear, of course, that spiritual leaders are required to proclaim the truth and nothing but the truth with regard to God’s word. This is what Paul did when he preached in Ephesus (Acts 20:27), and it is what he required of his protege Timothy (2 Tim. 4:1-5). However, spiritual leaders must also teach the flock to be able to discern truth from error on their own. This began with the priests who served in the tabernacle and later in the temple (cf. Lev. 10:9-11; Ezk. 44:23), and it continues through the Christian age. One of Paul’s final instructions to Timothy was to teach the word to faithful men, who would be able to teach others also (2 Tim. 2:2). This certainly implies that each individual must be able to discern right from wrong based upon his personal understanding of scripture.
This is why the writer of Hebrews was so dissatisfied with the people to whom he wrote. They had been taught the truth, and should have by that time grown and matured in the faith to the point that they were teaching others. The fact that they were not able to do this tells us that they had not fulfilled their responsibility as individual believers. In v. 14 the scripture says that it is by practice that one’s senses are trained to discern good and evil. Obviously these Hebrew Christians had not been exercising themselves in the use of God’s word, and they were chastised because of this failure.
The best example of how to exercise one’s senses in the use of God’s word comes from people who were not yet Christians at the time. In Acts 17:11 Luke tells us that the Bereans received the word with eagerness and examined the scriptures daily to see whether the things they were being taught were so. This, then, is the model for us to follow. We must exercise our minds in God’s word in order to become knowledgeable and capable in its use. Part of this exercise is the systematic study of scripture, as Paul exhorted in 2 Tim. 2:15. He said, “Be diligent to present yourself approved of God as a workman who does not need to be ashamed, accurately handling the word of truth.” When we do as Paul commanded, we will know God’s word, just as He intended us to know it, and we will train our senses to discern good and evil. If our senses are so trained, we will not stumble or be led astray.