Punishment and Discipline

Dear Church Family,

A couple of people have asked about the poem that I read this past Sunday during the Lord’s Supper. The poem is called, “A Dialogue-Anthem” by George Herbert and was written in 1633. The poem is a dialogue between the Christian and Death and speaks of Christ’s victory of the grave. You may read the text of the poem online here: http://www.ccel.org/ccel/herbert/temple/Dialogue.html.

In the sermon this coming Sunday morning, we will be picking up our series in the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Galatians in chapter 3, verses 15-22. In this passage, Paul discusses the relationship between the promise made to Abraham and the Law given through Moses. These verses are part of an extended discussion on the purpose of the Law.

Historically, theologians have spoken of the Law as having three uses: (1) civil, (2) pedagogical; (3) normative. Next week, I’ll write more on these three uses. At present, suffice it to say that in chapters 3-4 of Galatians, Paul’s emphasis is on the pedagogical use – the Law is a tutor which leads us to recognize our need of Christ and His righteousness (Galatians 3:24). In Chapters 5-6, Paul’s emphasis is on the normative use – the Law teaches the believer how to walk, how to live (Galatians 5:14; 6:2). Again, I’ll write more about these three uses and why it’s important to understand them, next week.

In these discussions – and how believers relate to God through the Law – I have found it helpful to highlight the difference between punishment and discipline. As an aside, we must be careful here because these words are often used interchangeably in the Bible. So, we don’t want to take what is said here about these concepts and import it into every use of these words in Scripture. I call this importation of all the various nuances of a concept into a particular word, ‘theological word-loading.’ It’s tempting to do, but it’s also dangerous. So, we need to be on guard against theological word-loading.

Differentiating between Punishment and Discipline

At the same time, it is helpful to differentiate between the concepts of punishment and discipline. A good way to see the difference is to consider the ends or the intended result of each. Punishment is intended to balance the scales of justice, to exact payment for a wrong committed. Discipline, on the other hand, is intended to correct the one who committed that wrong, to benefit the one who is disciplined. The former serves justice, the latter serves the offender.

We see the differentiation of these concepts in debates surrounding the penal system of our country. I’m not an attorney or a law-expert, and I’m surely over-simplifying the debate, but it seems to me that the debates surround this question: are those who commit crimes put in prison in order to punish them for their crimes (to balance the scales of justice) or to rehabilitate them (to teach them to obey the law).

Does God Punish or Discipline?

So, in differentiating between the concepts of punishment and discipline, here is the question: Does God punish people for their sins or does he discipline them for their sins? The answer is yes – both/and.

In our natural state, because of our sin, all men are deserving of God’s wrath – His punishment (John 3:26; Ephesians 2:1-3). Each individual person who sins will die and be punished for their own sin; the wickedness of the wicked will be upon himself (Ezekiel 18:20).

However, the good news of the gospel is this: “when the fullness of the time came, God sent forth His son, born of a woman, born under the Law, so that He might redeem those who were under the Law, that we might receive the adoption as sons” (Galatians 4:4-5). Thus, “if we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9).

Notice the words that are used in that last verse to describe how God acts in forgiving us. It does not say that God is forgetful and merciful to forgive our sins. No, God is faithful (to His covenant promises) and righteous (just) to forgive us our sins. How is He just? Because God has already punished our sins by pouring out His wrath on the Lord Jesus Christ. To punish those who are ‘in Christ’ (who belong to Him) would by unjust. There is no more punishment for those who trust in Christ.

Instead, for believers – those who have been justified by faith in Christ – we will never be punished for our sins! Praise God! There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus (Romans 8:1)! Because justice has been served on the cross of Calvary wherein God punished our sins in His only begotten Son, God does not punish us. He disciplines us. For He disciplines those whom He loves (Hebrews 12:5).

Justice having been served, God disciplines us for our good – in order that we might share in His holiness. Human fathers discipline their children as seems best to them, but “God disciplines us for our good, so that we may share His holiness. All discipline for the moment seems not to be joyful, but sorrowful; yet to those who have been trained by it, afterwards it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness” (Hebrews 12:10-11).

Conclusion

Understanding the difference between the concepts of punishment and discipline is foundational to understanding how we relate to God through His Law. Apart from Christ, God’s Law condemns and punishes us. In Christ, God’s Law disciplines and trains us in holiness.

For those who have come to know Jesus Christ and the love of God for us in Him, we can have confidence in the day of judgment because we share in God’s holiness (1 John 4:16-17). Christ’s righteousness has been credited to our account. Thus, though fear involves punishment, we have nothing to fear because there is no punishment for those whom God has accepted in Christ, only love (1 John 4:18). And, in that love, there is no punishment, only discipline.

The Lord be with you!
- Pastor Peter M. Dietsch