“Good Discipline” (Hebrews 12:4-11)
11th Sunday after Pentecost (August 25, 2019)
A few minutes ago, via our second Scripture reading, you heard all about that horrible “D” word: Discipline. The text raises the question: Does God punish me for my sin or does God discipline me in my sin? Is there a difference? Does it matter?
It most definitely matters! Our whole relationship with God hinges on it. After all, this text, which concurs with other portions of God’s Word, clearly says that God does discipline us. You and I might not like it and our hedonistic culture might simply be appalled by it, but there is no debate about it. In fact, here we read that God “chastises (punishes) every son He receives.”
The real issue we must come to terms with is the how and why of that discipline. If God’s discipline of us is nothing but punishment for our sins, then, why aren’t we disciplined by Him every moment of our lives? After all, we sin continuously in thought, word and deed. We might also ask that if God is in the habit of punishing us for each of our sins, then what in the world is the whole purpose of Jesus’ suffering and death? Did He not die to atone for our sins? God punished Jesus already for all your sins and mine, whether those be our inherited sin from Adam or the sins we commit every waking moment. No, God does not discipline us for our sin but rather He disciplines us in our sin. That means His discipline of us has a whole different aim or goal than punishment. So, what is that purpose?
Understanding and even appreciating God’s discipline is, then, without a doubt the most crucial aspect of our walk in faith next to our appreciation of Jesus’ cross. A wrong understanding will negatively affect our whole attitude toward God, as well as our relationship with God. A wrong understanding of His discipline of us could even lead us to despise God and lead us to abandon Him.
Verses 5 and 6 frame the whole discussion of God’s discipline. Let me read them to you once again: “And have you forgotten the exhortation that addresses you as sons? ‘My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord, nor be weary when reproved by him. For the Lord disciplines the one He loves, and chastises every son whom He receives.”
It is truly noteworthy that the holy writer called these words from God about discipline an “exhortation,” more literally, “an encouragement.” This tells us that what God says to us here is not meant to be a threat nor is it expressed in His anger. What He says is not a statement of condemnation and eternal wrath. On the contrary, it contains words which are emanating from His love for us. We are meant to be comforted by them, lifted up from any despair, most especially when we are disciplined by Him.
There are various facets and nuisances to God’s discipline presented to us by God’s holy writer. Each gives us real insight into the how and why of God’s discipline.
What becomes evident immediately is that the Lord’s discipline is couched in terms of “child rearing” not judgment. We see this in the Greek word for discipline itself. It’s root is the noun for “child.” Every child comes into this world totally immature and ill-equipped to live life safely and successfully. The central task of a parent is to protect, nurture, guide, and instruct his/her child. Hence, this term translated as discipline is often utilized to convey the idea of instruction; or teaching.
The whole frame of reference for what is said here is that of a father disciplining his son. The Holy Writer addresses us, his hearers, initially with words from the 3rd chapter of Proverbs which read: “My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the LORD.” He goes on to say, “…the LORD disciplines the one he loves, and chastises every son whom He receives.” Later, he says, “God is treating you as sons. For what son is there whom his father does not discipline?” He then actually makes reference to our earthly fathers and their dealings with us.
All this assures and comforts us, therefore, that when God disciplines us, He is not acting as a judge, or executioner, who really has no concern as to our welfare or reform but simply to see that the guilty get the punishment the law says they deserve. Instead, as our Father God punishes, disciplines, to teach His sons and daughters to turn from every sin and evil that would seek to lead them to their destruction and to cling to Him and His Word of promise alone for their guidance, comfort, security and, ultimately, salvation. As our Good and loving Father He desires not just our temporal but also our eternal welfare.
Now, despite the comfort of this father to son relationship out of which the LORD disciplines us, we are taught here also that we ought not be naïve about that discipline’s impact upon us. God is not one of those easy, care-free, fathers whose discipline consists in nothing more than a few minutes of inconvenience to us. God intends His discipline to be productive by insuring that it is truly impactful; that is, painful, so as to get our attention. The holy writer calls that discipline, literally, a whipping or scourging. Our old English word masticate is derived from this Greek term.
Unlike all too many parents and others responsible for the discipline of youth today, who have been duped by a permissive society into thinking that children will with enough information make the right choices, God knows all too well our sinful condition. He knows that informing a child and reinforcing that with some positive reinforcement alone will not make a well-adjusted and good person. God understands that sinners can only seem to learn when the consequences of their actions hurt enough to get their attention.
So, yes, the LORD does at times bring you to real tears, pain and heartache with His discipline. He does at times let you suffer the harsh consequences of your sins…allow evil to have its way with you…disease to afflict you…enemies of Christ to assault you or abuse you. But as your loving Father He does so for your present and eternal good. As the apostle of the LORD assures you, “God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose” (Ro. 8:28).
There is, however, an important contrast between God’s discipline and that of our earthly fathers. Our earthly fathers disciplined us for a short time as it seemed best to them. In fact, as I can testify, sometimes fathers discipline for their own benefit. Our heavenly Father disciplines us for His children’s benefit… that we might share His holiness.
To see how God disciplines us for our good, we need look no further than Jesus’ cross. There He actually punished His Son, not just disciplined Him. God’s only begotten Son did not need to learn anything. He wasn’t a sinner headed for hell. He did not need to be saved from His sins. He was already holy as His Father. But Jesus’ Father, our Father, punished Jesus in our place to redeem us from all the actual punishment we deserve. This is good! It is great for us.
My father would always say as he spanked me, “This hurts me more than it does you!” It wasn’t until I became a father that I appreciated what he said. But our Heavenly Father actually suffered Himself in punishing Jesus in our place. Now, that’s love and with such great purpose for us!
God’s purpose for disciplining you is primarily that you obtain eternal life in Jesus Christ so that you can live in His holiness and glory forever. At the same time, He does not want sin or any other evil to lead you away from that goal. To accomplish this, God’s purpose is also that you might in your daily living share in His holiness; that is, that you not be corrupted and taken from Him by the pollution and falsehoods of the devil, the world and even your own sinful flesh. If a little harsh discipline will keep you from living in sin, walking in the ways of this world, then He will bring that unpleasantness to bear in your body and/or life.
The key adverb characterizing your Heavenly Father’s disciplining of you is love. As we already read, God disciplines those He loves.
If I were to smack you alongside your head as I passed by you simply because it gave me some kind of perverse pleasure to see you hurt, that’s not love. It is just plain old meanness… wickedness. But if I slapped you on the backside of your head to get your quick attention because you are totally oblivious to the fact that a grizzly was running up behind you at full speed, then I would be doing so because I care for you and your life!
No matter how hard or soft God’s slap on the back of the head is, His discipline hurts. You can also be assured it is because He loves you and wants you safe from every evil. If He didn’t love you, He wouldn’t bother. In fact, the holy writer does not sugar coat it. He says in no uncertain words, “God is treating you as sons. For what son is there whom his father does not discipline? If you are left without discipline, in which all have participated, then you are illegitimate children and not sons” (12:7,8).
Did you hear the term: “illegitimate” child? The King James translation is a bit more earthy. It says that if you are left without God’s discipline then you are a bastard. God disciplines those born of His Spirit in Holy Baptism and the Gospel. They are His children. He claims them as His own. They are washed in the blood of His only begotten Son, Jesus Christ. He has made them “coheirs with Christ.” To leave those He gave new birth and washed in the blood of the Son of God without discipline would be Him saying, “I don’t know you. You are not my child. Go your own way. I never knew you.” Who of us would ever want that?
Ought you and I, therefore, in all good conscience despise God’s discipline by getting angry with Him, whine and complain about such discipline, or wallow in our self-pity as if God were unjustly abusing us? Of course not! We ought, rather, grant Him our greatest respect and honor for truly being a loving Father to us. To plead with God not to “discipline” us; that is, not to bring any pain or suffering into our lives, is in essence to ask not to be God’s child. It is saying to the Lord, “Don’t do what is best for me! Don’t love me the extent that You dare to discipline me!”
The Holy Writer continues: “Besides this, we have had earthly fathers who disciplined us and we respected them. Shall we not much more be subject to the Father of spirits and live? For they disciplined us for a short time as it seemed best to them, but he disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness.”
Does this mean, then, that if God is disciplining you for your good that it will make you happy and you will want to sing little, joyous ditties? I suppose you could but in the pain that customarily accompanies such discipline of the LORD I can tell you that you would be a rare person indeed to be moved to do so. As our text states: all discipline for the moment, while we are experiencing it, is sorrowful. If it wasn’t it would not have the necessary effect!
His discipline is not designed to have that effect. Rather, it is administered in His love to bring forth in you the peaceful fruit of righteousness. By that the holy writer is not saying that you will be made righteous by enduring such discipline. As a baptized believer in Jesus Christ, you are already righteous. Jesus was punished to take away your guilt and sin. God has declared you righteous in Jesus. He has applied the righteousness of Jesus to you in your baptism and through the spoken word of forgiveness. You have received it through faith.
What the holy writer is saying is that, through a healthy and complete appreciation of God’s heart and plan for disciplining, you are brought to peace with that discipline. You are made to understand and to trust that He is faithful and righteous in His discipline of you. You can be content that His discipline is good, that is for your present and eternal benefit.
Instead of feeling abused and unloved by God when we are made to suffer from various trials and troubles, we ought to feel well treated, and in fact, genuinely loved. We ought to rejoice that God cares enough for us that He wants us to turn out right… that He wants us to remain in true faith in Christ and His cross, so that we might, when all is said and done, enjoy the eternal fruits of the punishment He endured for us. The bottom line is then that instead of being fearful of this “D” word, “discipline,” we can say to the LORD when He disciplines us, “Thanks, Heavenly Father, it is good that You discipline me!”