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The Discipline of God's Children


Thomas R. Fletcher


We like to think of God as a God of love. We do not like to think much about God punishing sin--especially as it would apply to us.

Many have twisted the truth of Scripture to a one-sided view. 1 John 1:9 has become their rallying cry. "If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness."  Many use that verse as a credit card for sin.  It is an antidote for failure, not a sin license.

God is a God of love. God does forgive our sin in response to our confessing and forsaking sin. However, God does punish sin in the lives of Christians, as Hebrews 12:4-11—the definitive passage on God’s discipline makes clear.

Verse 4 gets the ball rolling. "In your struggle against sin, you have not resisted to the point of shedding your blood."  Hebrews was written to a group of Hebrew Christians considering forsaking their Christian faith and returning to Judaism. The shedding blood reference refers to those Christians who had died for their faith rather than deny Christ.

We may complain about how we've been tempted, but how many of us have faced death for our faith? We may like to think we would die for our faith--but is that really the case? If it were, we should all be willing to resist any temptation to sin. We would stop being so willing to grab the escape hatch of 1 John 1:9.

Sin brings complications—things we cannot know beforehand, one of which is the discipline of God. "And have you forgotten that word of encouragement that addresses you as sons: 'My son, do not make light of the Lord's discipline, and do not lose heart when he rebukes you, because the Lord disciplines those he loves, and he punishes everyone he accepts as a son (verse 5-6).'" The Greek word translated discipline means "to train a child," and includes both correction and punishment. God brings punishment through many forms. He may allow us to reap the natural consequences of our sin. He may allow loss of finances, loss of health, or loss of respect—to name a few. This is not to say that every time a brother or sister suffers such a fate it is God's discipline. We live in a fallen world. Bad things happen to good people.

Discipline, for the most part, is a private matter. It is between God and the offending party—not for another to judge. God will make one aware of the offense and the fact that the discipline is from him. If this were not the case, what good would the discipline do? God does not take sin lightly. He does not want us to take it lightly either.

Verse 6 makes it clear that every child of God receives his discipline. The degree and severity of the discipline depends upon several factors. One factor is our response to the discipline. Conviction is a first step in the discipline process. If one responds to conviction, there is no need to escalate the process. If one ignores conviction, God will get one's attention at another level.

The fact that God loves us does not mean he is willing to overlook our sin.  In fact, the opposite is true. His care for our well-being means that instead of overlooking our sin, he disciplines us to change our behavior. Christ has borne the ultimate penalty for our sin. However, that does not mean God will not inflict a lesser penalty with the purpose of correcting our faults. Discipline comes our way when we have ignored biblical instruction and Holy Spirit conviction.

The second point made is that if one is not subject to God's discipline, one is not a true child of God. Verse 7 asks the rhetorical question: "For what son is not disciplined by his father?" Verse 8 makes the counterpoint. If one is without discipline--that one is not a true child of God. Put simply, if a person goes to church, professes to know Christ while continually sinning with no divine discipline, he or she is not a true child of God.

I am not speaking of occasional failure but repeated indulgence. Perhaps you know some Christians who have done some bad things. Committing a sin is neither evidence for nor against one being a Christian. Theologian J.I. Packer perhaps says it best: "The Church is not a museum for saints, it is a hospital for sinners, where we all suffer from the same disease and all are subject to relapse at any time."

The evidence of true faith is not in singular acts.  The evidence is in the discipline. God will not let his child get away with repeated sin. The discipline proves that person truly is God's child.

Verse 7 says that the Christian is to "endure hardship as discipline." The word translated "endure" means "to abide; undergo; or bear patiently." When we find ourselves undergoing the Lord's discipline, we are not to fight against it. We are to submit and learn the lesson.

There is a third aspect of discipline. God's discipline yields changed behavior. God's purpose in disciplining us is that we will share in his holiness.

We frequently hear a couple words as Christians. They are justification and sanctification. Often, these words are used without consideration for their true meanings.

"Justification is the judicial act of God whereby he declares the Christian righteous," as my friend and seminary professor Jim Wright defines it.

Justification takes place at salvation. At the instant the sinner repents of his or her sin and places faith in Christ, God declares that person righteous. Is a person truly righteous (sinless) at that point? No. He or she still has many problems that need worked out. At that point, we are not righteous, we still sin, yet God has declared us righteous. That is justification.

Sanctification, on the other hand, is the process by which we actually become righteous. If you have been a Christian for some time, there ought to be some things you will not do today that you may have done a year ago. Sanctification is a progressive process. It starts the day you give your life to Christ and will not be complete until the day you die or Christ returns, whichever comes first. Sanctification is the process of becoming in actuality what God has already declared us to be. God's discipline is an aid in the sanctification process. God brings discipline to prompt us onward in the sanctification process.

Look at verses 9-10. Most of us know what it is to be disciplined by earthly parents. Why shouldn't we expect discipline from our heavenly Father? He disciplines us that we might live. He brings chastisement so we will see the error of our ways and correct ungodly behavior. He wants us to be holy in all our conduct.

As verse 11 makes clear, "No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful...," it is not enjoyable to feel the sting of God's whip. However, verse 7 encourages us to endure God's discipline. Why endure? The result seen at the end of verse 11, "Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it."

Our response to God's discipline is all-important. We must endure and willingly change our wayward behavior. We are in holiness training. Discipline is the exercise that equips us to share in his holiness. God's purpose in bringing discipline to our lives is to make us righteous, to fit us to share in his holiness. C. S. Lewis said it well: "God whispers to us in our pleasure, speaks to us in our conscience, but shouts in our pains..."

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