I was blessed to have grown up in a home in which I had a father who both taught me about, and who modeled, loving discipline. He faithfully taught me God’s word and trained me in the nurture of the Lord. When I was rebelling, he would use appropriate measures of chastening. Of course, if I’m honest, it’s not something that I was particularly fond of as a boy (and certainly not of as an unbeliever!); but, now that I am a father–and the more I long to grow in Christlikeness–the more I grow in my daily appreciation of, and acknowledgment of my need for, the loving chastisement of God the Father. Yet, for all that, I still sometime struggle to understand exactly how God chastens us as His children; and, I realize that when we approach this subject we must tread lightly lest we cause damage to those who have been wounded by hateful and harsh parental discipline.
The locus classicus in this difficult subject is Hebrews 12:3-13. Leading up to this passage, the writer to the Hebrews had been dealing with the subject of suffering and perseverance in the Christian life. Some of the Hebrew Christians were being tempted to turn from their profession of faith in Christ in order to avoid persecution. While exhorting them on to perseverance, the writer first held up Jesus as being better than the prophets, Angels, Moses, Joshua, Aaron, Melchizedek, the Levites, the Tabernacle and the Sabbath Day. He then expounded the depths and riches of the atoning sacrifice of Jesus and reminded his readers that Jesus would come again, “apart from sin for salvation.”
After setting out the glories of Christ, the writer set out the example of the OT saints who trusted Him before us (Heb. 11). He then took us from creation to the cross (Heb. 11:1-12:2) to show us that it is the same faith by which we live. We are given a glimpse into the faith of Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Rahab, Gideon, Samson, Jephthah, Barak, David, Samuel and the Prophets, who all looked forward to the coming Redeemer and the promise of a “world to come.”
When the writer finally reached the climax of Redemptive History he honed in on the sufferings of the Lord Jesus. He charged his readers:
“Let us lay aside every weight and the sin that so easily besets us, Looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. For consider Him who endured such hostility from sinners against Himself, lest you become weary and discouraged in your souls. You have not yet resisted to bloodshed, striving against sin. And you have forgotten the exhortation which speaks to you as to sons:
“My son, do not despise the chastening of the Lord,
Nor be discouraged when you are rebuked by Him;
For whom the Lord loves He chastens,
And scourges every son whom He receives.”
In this way, the writer is telling us that Jesus is both the object, source and goal of saving faith, as well as the example of all those who suffer. He endured. We can endure. He endured because of the prospect of bringing many sons to glory. We endure because of the prospect of being with Him in glory. Jesus was “made perfect through His sufferings.” If there was a sense in which the sinless Son of God had to be perfected as the second Adam, we, who are sinful and fallen in Adam certainly need to be matured and perfected through sufferings.
What is most interesting about Hebrews 12 is that the writer moves from a consideration of Jesus’ “resisting sin unto bloodshed” to a charge for the people of God not to despise the chastening of God. They were not fixing their eyes on Jesus. They were allowing themselves to buckle under the trials. What are we to make of this? It appears, on a prima facia reading of the text, that the writer is saying that the sufferings that the Hebrew Christians were facing for their faith in Christ was loving chastening from God the Father. Can this be right? Is it possible that suffering for the name and for the sake of Jesus can also be chastisement for sin? The answer to this question is a complex, yet resounding, “Yes!”
William Still sought to explain the idea of the discipline of the Lord in connection to the context of Hebrews 12:1-3 when he said:
Right away there is this new idea of the discipline of the Lord. Not just any discipline–but the discipline of the Lord. Now, of course, that can come through persecution, as it had done the Hebrews to whom he is writing; or it can come through the strictures of God’s word being leveled at us and taken seriously. If you are taking this word seriously then that is going to involve you in discipline, maybe chastisement. Either way, whether it comes through others–the wickedness of others–through persecution and trial or through God’s holy word challenging us to die to all that is evil–either way, it is to be regarded as the discipline of the Lord who often uses our enemy as the rod of chastisement for His sinful children. He uses Satan to thrash his children. However it comes, we as weak and sinful creatures are not to rebel at the Lord’s rebuke, nor quibble or cavil at his chastening because these are the authentic marks of sonship.
In his commentary on Hebrews, John Owen also sought to explain how Hebrews 12:3 is related to 12:4-6 when he wrote:
1) The sufferings which we undergo from men, for the profession of the gospel shall be also chastisements of love from God, unto our spiritual advantage.
2) The gospel never requires our suffering, but if we examine ourselves, we shall find that we stand in need of the divine chastisement in it.1
3) When, by the wisdom of God, we can discern that whatever we suffer on the one hand is for the glory of God and the gospel, and on the other is necessary unto our own sanctification, we shall be prevailed with unto patience and perseverance.
Owen continued his explanation of this principle when he noted:
Where there is sincerity in faith and obedience, let not men despond, if they find themselves called to suffer for the Gospel, when they seem to be unfit and unprepared for it; seeing it is the design of God, by those sufferings whereunto they are called, on a public account, to purify and cleanse them from their present evil frames.
This multitudes have found by experience, that their outward pressing sufferings, between them and the world, have been personal, purifying chastisements between God and their souls. By them have they been awakened, revived, mortified unto the world, and, as the apostle expressed it, made partakers of the holiness of God, unto their inexpressible advantage and consolation. And, hereby does God defeat the counsels and expectations of the world, having a design to accomplish by their agency which they know nothing of. For those very reproaches, imprisonments, and stripes, with the loss of goods, and danger of their lives, which the world applies unto their ruin, God at the same time makes use of for their refining, purifying, consolation, and joy. In all these things are the divine wisdom and goodness of God, in contriving and effecting all these things unto the glory of his grace and the salvation of the church, for ever to be admired.2
I would be remiss if I did not give a few caveats relating to how we approach this subject pastorally. On the one hand, we must be on guard against–what I like to call “Job’s friends syndrome.” We could all too easily become a miserable comforter to those who are suffering because we believe that it must have been because of some personal sin that a believer is suffering. On the other hand, we must guard against a denial of what Hebrews 12:3-13, James 1:14-15 and 1 Corinthians 11:29-30 teach about sin and suffering. All suffering is a result of sin–that is, of Adam’s sin. Some may be a result of personal sin. Yet, we can never interpret the providential hand of God for someone else. We are meant to examine our own lives. We are, in the words of the Puritans, “to kiss the rod” as God is lovingly conforming us to the image of His Son. He may use the word, the sacraments, the encouragements and rebukes of fellow believers, church discipline or suffering. Whatever He chooses to use, it is given to us to see how we may be made more into the image of Christ through it.
Of the many great examples of believers who have expressed the spiritual benefits they have received from suffering, one of the greatest examples is that of John Bunyan. While he sat in the Bedford prison for preaching the Gospel, Bunyan wrote of the pain he felt when he thought about his wife and blind daughter. Bunyan wrote:
I found myself a man, and compassed with infirmities; the parting with my wife and poor children hath oft been to me in this place as the pulling the flesh from my bones, and that not only because I am somewhat too fond of those great mercies, but also because I should have often brought to my mind the many hardships, miseries and wants that my poor family was like to meet with, should I be taken from them, especially my poor blind child, who lay nearer my heart than all I had besides; O the thoughts of the hardship I thought my blind one might go under, would break my heart to pieces. 3
Nevertheless Bunyan explained:
I never knew what it was for God to stand by me at all turns, and at every offer of Satan ‘to afflict me,’ &c. as I have found Him since I came in hither; for look how fears have presented themselves, so have supports and encouragements, yea, when I have started, even as it were at nothing else but my shadow, yet God, as being very tender of me, hath not suffered me to be molested, but would with one Scripture and another strengthen me against all; insomuch that I have often said, were it lawful, I could pray for greater trouble, for the greater comfort’s sake. Eccl. 7:14. 2 Cor. 1:5. 4
Again he wrote:
I never had in all my life so great an inlet into the Word of God as now; those Scriptures that I saw nothing in before, are made in this place and state to shine upon me; Jesus Christ also was never more real and apparent than now; here I have seen Him and felt Him indeed: O that word, “we have not preached unto you cunningly devised fables,” 2 Pet. 1:16; and that, “God raised Christ from the dead, and gave Him glory, that your faith and hope might be in God,” 1 Pet. 1:2, were blessed words unto me in this my imprisoned condition.5
When we turn to the Scriptures, we find ample examples of this principle. For instance, King David was a man who understood what it was to be afflicted of God. In Psalm 119:65-72 he expressed what he understood to be the purpose of his afflictions. He summed it up when he said, “It is good for me that I have been afflicted, that I may learn Your statutes” (Ps. 119:72). When David had repented of his sin of adultery with Bathsheba and murder of her husband Uriah, the prophet Nathan came to David as said, “The Lord also has put away your sin; you shall not die, however, because by this deed you have given great occasion to the enemies of the Lord to blaspheme, the child also who is born to you shall surely die” (2 Sam. 12:14-15). In addition, God said, “Now therefore, the sword shall never depart from your house, because you have despised Me, and have taken the wife of Uriah the Hittite to be your wife.’ Thus says the Lord: ‘Behold, I will raise up adversity against you from your own house; and I will take your wives before your eyes and give them to your neighbor, and he shall lie with your wives in the sight of this sun. For you did it secretly, but I will do this thing before all Israel, before the sun” (2 Sam. 12:10-12).
Sinclair Ferguson, in his sermon, “Father and Sons,” helpfully captures the essence of Hebrews 12:3-17 when he explains:
He speaks about what God has in mind for us. The third big word is the word holiness. God, the heavenly Father is utterly passionate about holiness. The problem is that I am not. He is utterly passionate about holiness. Everything else is utterly incidental in my life. He does not care if I make money. He does not care if I have a great job and a big house. He does not care if I have a good reputation in the world. How do I know that? Because He didn’t care about it in the case of His only begotten Son–because He had a far bigger vision for His Son than these toys; and He has a far bigger vision for your life than these toys and bubbles that will disappear in the three score years and ten–that we count so valuable and by which we measure one another and out success in life–and what the heavenly Father is intent on doing is creating what this writer calls holiness. He child-trains us for our good that we may share in His holiness.
The discipline of the Lord is a mark of His love for His children. The writer makes this clear when he quotes Proverbs 3:11-12. There is a quote that has been floating around the internet over the past year. It goes something like, “As you get older you realize that the “cool” parents were actually just bad parents.” It captures so well what the writer is saying to the Hebrews. A loving parent is one who disciplines their children. It is not loving to let them be and to allow them to fall into many harmful and sinfully destructive ways. Our heavenly Father is committed to manifesting His love in our lives through His chastening. This may sometimes come in the form of suffering.
One of the most amazing aspects of the teaching of this passage is that as John Owen essentially says, “love precedes discipline. And because love comes first, it will remain even when, in heaven, we will no longer need to be disciplined.”6
If God calls us to suffer, He will also supply the grace to receive it as a mark of His Fatherly love in conforming us further to the image of His sinless and holy Son who suffered for us “for the joy set before Him.” We have never resisted sin unto the point of bloodshed, as our Lord did. While our affliction might not be on account of some personal and particular sin, we are always in need of God removing the dross from the silver in our lives. We must, in the word of the Puritans, learn to “kiss the rod” for the spiritual benefits that come to us through it. In so doing, our Father will make us partakers of His righteousness. With David (a man who knew what it was to suffer) we will then be able to say, “Before I was afflicted I went astray, but now I keep Your word…It is good for me that I have been afflicted, that I may learn Your statutes” (Ps. 119:67-71).
The pastor/hymn writer John Newton brings all of this together to show how God often works in the believer’s life in the experience of grace:
I asked the Lord that I might grow
In faith, and love, and every grace;
Might more of His salvation know,
And seek, more earnestly, His face.
’Twas He who taught me thus to pray,
And He, I trust, has answered prayer!
But it has been in such a way,
As almost drove me to despair.
I hoped that in some favored hour,
At once He’d answer my request;
And by His love’s constraining pow’r,
Subdue my sins, and give me rest.
Instead of this, He made me feel
The hidden evils of my heart;
And let the angry pow’rs of hell
Assault my soul in every part.
Yea more, with His own hand He seemed
Intent to aggravate my woe;
Crossed all the fair designs I schemed,
Blasted my gourds, and laid me low.
Lord, why is this, I trembling cried,
Wilt thou pursue thy worm to death?
“’Tis in this way, the Lord replied,
I answer prayer for grace and faith.
These inward trials I employ,
From self, and pride, to set thee free;
And break thy schemes of earthly joy,
That thou may’st find thy all in Me.”7
1. John Owen An Exposition of the Epistle to the Hebrews (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1862) p. 252
3. John Bunyan The Whole Works of John Bunyan (London:Blakie and Son, 1862) vol. 1, p. 48
4. Ibid., p. 47
6. Excerpt from Ligonier Ministries devotional, “The Father’s Discipline.”
7. John Newton Olney Hymns (London: Printed for J. Johnson, 1793) p. 273
Helpful Resources From Tabletalk Magazine On Discipline and the Christian
R.C. Sproul “Experiencing God’s Discipline”
Burk Parsons “The Assurance of Discipline”
Tom Ascol “Discipline in the Home“
J. Mark Beach “The Blessing of God’s Discipline”
Donald Whitney “The Discipline of Learning”