The Discipline of God

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Church programs, campus ministries, and independent organizations today emphasize the need for radical discipleship. It is not always clear what they mean by this. The word radical can be a trendy term. What is clear is this: if one’s view of discipleship undervalues discipline, then we can say that whatever adjective that person uses before the term discipleship, the latter has ceased to be biblical.

The words disciple and discipline derive from one Latin root and carry the notion of order. Referring to treatment that corrects or punishes, discipline is instruction or knowledge given to a learner (discipulus). Discipleship and discipline are inseparably connected; Jesus’ ministry exemplifies that. Christ did not hesitate to correct His disciples (Matt. 8:26; Mark 10:14, 16:14; Luke 9:54–55), who often addressed Him as “Rabbi” or “Teacher.”

This is not surprising, for what godly father allows his child to persevere in disobedience? Hebrews declares, “For whom the Lord loveth he chasteneth, and scourgeth every son whom he receiveth” (12:6, KJV used throughout). The Father’s chastening is indispensable to our relationship with Him. When the Father adopts us into His family, showering us with love, He treats us as true sons, fatherly discipline included. Discipline is not an end in itself; God uses it to correct our defective behavior and bring us to obedience (Lev. 26:23; 1 Cor. 5:5). Determined to have holy children, God disciplines us privately through providences and publicly through church discipline.

That means, first, that every Christian undergoes private chastisements for sin. After David committed adultery with Bathsheba and then murdered Uriah, the Lord sent Nathan to rebuke him. “The Lord also hath put away thy sin; thou shalt not die. Howbeit, because by this deed thou hast given great occasion to the enemies of the Lord to blaspheme, the child also that is born unto thee shall surely die” (2 Sam. 12:13–14). The Lord sent David consequences for his sin to vindicate His own honor and lovingly brought David to repentance and worship, as Psalm 51 poignantly describes. “Chastising is an effect of his love,” says John Owen.

A cautionary note is that not every chastening act of providence stems from divine discipline. Though all suffering derives from the fall, there is not always a direct correlation between personal sin and personal suffering, as the accounts of Job and the man born blind plainly teach (see John 9:3). In their cases, God’s chastening hand was motivated primarily by the furthering of His own glory. We cannot always link suffering to specific sin.

Second, Christ viewed discipline as part of church ministry. In establishing the New Testament church, Jesus committed to His disciples the keys of the kingdom along with the power to bind and loose (Matt. 16:19; 18:15–18; John 20:23). The strong language in these passages should not be interpreted too literally, as if the church itself has the power to forgive or condemn sin eternally. But Jesus has specially empowered the overseers of His church to regulate its membership and conduct. He instructs them whom to include and whom to exclude, and He provides biblical precepts that members must obey.

Church discipline thus has positive and negative aspects. Positively,church discipline includes instruction and teaching. The church is every believer’s educator, trainer, and nourisher, as the Spirit acts through the preached Word, the sacraments, and church discipline. Negatively, discipline involves corrective actions for members, from rebuke to excommunication (Matt. 18:15–17). In this, the church officers utilize the keys of the kingdom.

The apostles and early church leaders understood Christ’s instructions as abiding principles. The apostolic church administered firm discipline to those erring in doctrine or practice. Witness, for example, Paul’s sharp admonitions to the Galatians for abandoning the gospel (Gal. 3:1–7) and how he urges the Thessalonians to withdraw from the disobedient (2 Thess. 3:6; see also Titus 3:10) and the Corinthian church to expel the immoral believer (1 Cor. 5:4–8). Passing the torch of ministry to younger pastors Timothy and Titus, Paul insists those who sin should face public rebuke (1 Tim. 5:20) and that vain talkers and deceivers must be stopped (Titus 1:10– 11). Jude bids the church save some “with fear, pulling them out of the fire; hating even the garment spotted by the flesh” (Jude 1:23). The church is to discipline believers if their behavior is inconsistent with the gospel.

The apostles, then, viewed discipline as a requisite, perpetual function of the church. The church is to regulate who is part of the community, disciplining members who seriously err in doctrine and life, and expelling impenitent members (Matt. 18:15–17). Not an end in itself, expulsion is the public means God uses to cause repentance or cleanse His church of defilement. “Purge out therefore the old leaven, that ye may be a new lump,” says 1 Corinthians 5:7.

The Reformers generally identified three marks of a true church: sound preaching of the Word, right administration of the sacraments, and biblical exercise of discipline. An important part of the church’s ministry is to grow believers from spiritual infancy to adulthood by instructing and correcting. Quoting Cyprian’s saying, “You cannot have God as your Father if you do not have the church as your mother,” John Calvin explained that God gathers His children into the bosom of the church “not only that they may be nourished by her help and ministry as long as they are infants and children, but also that they be guided by her motherly care until they mature and at last reach the goal of faith” (Institutes of the Christian Religion 4.1.1).

Discipline thus promotes genuine piety and godliness rather than rebellion or legalism — privately and in church ministry. By cultivating private disciplines such as Bible reading and meditation, praying, devotional reading, and journaling, Christians usually grow in godliness. But godliness also results from public church discipline, which should seek to encourage Christians to repentance and to live lives of holy, responsive, gratuitous obedience to God. Discipline so practiced offers the law as a set of rules we must follow not to earn God’s acceptance but to express gratitude for being accepted in the Beloved (Eph. 1:6). Believers do not achieve genuine piety by legalistic law-keeping, but by a life of love conversant with God’s law, flowing from our standing in Christ. Thus, piety is not isolationist spirituality but a lifestyle of loving God and neighbor fostered by spiritual discipline. It brings together the freedom of love and the discipline of obedience. From these considerations, we may conclude that piety grows best in the context of the church, where preaching, administering the sacraments, and discipline work together to promote godly living in the home, church, school, and marketplace.

Today, though, discipline has declined in the contemporary church; churchgoers see themselves as independent, voluntary members, accountable to no one. But Hebrews 13:7 says that submission to God and His appointed authorities, not autonomy, is a mark of faith. Our baptism into the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost signifies this subjection to authority. When the Israelites were “baptized unto Moses in the cloud and in the sea,” they were baptized under his God-given authority (1 Cor. 10:2). Baptism into the name of the triune God means that God calls us to be His disciples and brings us under His authority, exercising that authority through the church.

Some think that church discipline is cruel; they fail to see that giving medicine to the sick is never cruel. Others fear that church discipline will strip the church of her glory, costing respect and members. In actuality, when the church faithfully administers discipline, she grows in respect, glory, and often membership, just as she did after Ananias and Sapphira were disciplined (Acts 5). Others argue that God does not need officers to keep His church pure since vengeance belongs to Him — He will manage His own vineyard. It is true that God needs no man. But He delegates authority to human officers who exercise discipline in His name, for His glory and the church’s purity. Sadly, few Christians realize today that receiving discipline from Jesus’ appointed office-bearers, ruling in accord with God’s Word, is receiving discipline from our Father Himself.

Discipline, then, is inseparable from discipleship. This is evident in our private lives, as God promises chastisement to all His children, and in the ministry of the church to her members. We must reclaim the teaching of the New Testament, the ancient church, and the Reformers, that receiving God’s discipline willingly is a distinguishing mark of every true Christian. God promised to disciple and discipline His children, Jesus commanded it of His disciples, the apostles insisted on it in the churches, and the Reformers reckoned it a mark of the true church. As we await the judgment day, let us strive to disciple and discipline as God does, so the church might appear a spotless, beautiful bride for her long-awaited Bridegroom.

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