This article on adoption into the family of God is about divine discipline and chastisement of the children of God.

Source: The Monthly Record, 2005. 4 pages.

Adoption and the Well-Being of the Sons

Often the question is asked: What are the essential marks of a Christian? To this question several answers are given, such as living in love or walking in holiness or dedicated discipleship. One answer that is not often given, but which is a sure mark of a Christian, is divine discipline. The author of Hebrews makes it clear that discipline is experienced by every Christian: ‘If you are not disciplined (and everyone undergoes discipline), then you are illegitimate children and not true sons’ (12:8).

It is quite difficult to find an English word to translate paideia, for it is a general term covering aspects of child training. The Authorised Version uses ‘chastisement’, but that can give the impression that only punishment is intended. Other translations use the term ‘discipline’. Chastisement is certainly part of the process, but it is not all of it. We are not to regard this family discipline as if it always involves rebukes. Rather we should include within it all that God does for our spiritual benefit.

We can see this if we consider images or pictures of God that illustrate his role in the discipline process. In Malachi 3:2-3, God is likened to a purifier of metals, with the impure metals depicting his people who need to be purified. In John 15, the Father is likened to a gardener who prunes his people in order for them to produce increasing fruit.

What methods or tools does God use in family discipline? Instruction in the Bible, fellowship with himself and his children, regular self-examination, dealings in providence, are some. The one prominent in his dealings with the readers of Hebrews was adversity. Most of us are strangers to this experience, a situation that most Christians elsewhere, whether in the past or the present, would find strange, given that opposition and trouble are described in the Bible as normal experiences of Christ’s church.

We have been considering the doctrine of adoption in the conference, and we noted that different roles are given to each person of the Trinity. This function of discipline is usually connected to the Father; nevertheless, Jesus is also involved because he told the church in Laodicea: ‘As many as I love, I rebuke and chasten.’

Divine discipline is necessary because the sons of God are still sinners. Although they have been regenerated and have the Holy Spirit indwelling them, they also have sinful flaws and tendencies that have to be dealt with. Of course, this experience of discipline is different from the punishment of sin that God also gives. There are at least three differences to note: first, in discipline God acts as a Father and not as a Judge; second, God deals with his sons and not with unbelievers; third, God intends correction and not retribution.

Importance of Retaining Bible Knowledge🔗

Before we look at the discipline itself, we should note the first criticism that the author of the passage makes of his readers. He begins by reminding his readers of the importance of having the scriptures fresh in their minds in order to understand their current circumstances: ‘And you have forgotten that word of encouragement that addresses you as sons.’ Backsliding begins when the Bible is forgotten. This, of course, is a basic principle of all areas of Christian life, whether our beliefs or our behaviour or our experience. ‘What says the scripture about this?’ should be our first response in every situation. His readers had forgotten a clear biblical teaching, and therefore did not possess the assurance and comfort they could have had. The remedy for this lack is frequent meditation on the Bible.

It is also worth noting that the forgotten Scripture was from an Old Testament book (Proverbs 3:11-12). The Old Testament is very important for Christian living and is not to be regarded as a Jewish book or an outdated book. It is the case that the New Testament reveals that believers are no longer under the Jewish ceremonial law. Nevertheless, as Paul writes in Romans 15:4: ‘For everything that was written in the past was written to teach us, so that through endurance and the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope.’ Note that the writer of Hebrews says ‘speaks’ and not ‘spoke’. It is crucial that we know the teachings and examples of the Bible in order for us to live a balanced Christian life. The Old Testament, as well as the New, belongs to the sons of God.

Three Types of Discipline in Adversity🔗

Three types of discipline of God’s children have been identified: corrective, preventative and instructive. Each believer receives them at different times in their lives. In order to see how each works out in practice, we can consider suitable biblical characters.

Corrective discipline is seen in the experience of David after his sin with Bathsheba. This form of discipline involved David experiencing sore trials in providence as well as intense soul pressure, which he describes in Psalm 32. The discipline, in this case, was designed to bring David to repentance, and what a wonderful repentance it was. David experienced restoring grace, producing penitence.

Preventative discipline is seen in the example of Paul receiving a thorn in the flesh in order to prevent him becoming proud of his spiritual attainments. Sometimes people think that Paul was a mature church leader when he had this experience. But if we work out when it took place, it likely occurred during the time he was home, the period of several years before Barnabas went and took him to Antioch. As part of Paul’s preparation for his future role, he needed both the heavenly experience and the preventive thorn in the flesh. This was restraining grace, preventing spiritual pride.

Instructive discipline is seen in the case of Job who went through an unusual series of adverse providential circumstances, for which he received no explanation. Nevertheless, it was an instructive experience in that Job perceived better the greatness of God in creation and providence; further, he also grasped in a deeper way that he was sinful, even although he had not committed any public sin.

But perhaps the biggest test for Job was when God asked him to pray for his friends. The proof that we have learned about God is that we become like God and do good to those who have opposed us. It was also an expression of family love because these men, who had been his temporary accusers, were his permanent brothers. This was refining grace, producing spiritual prosperity.

The above examples indicate that discipline can come to believers who had made great sacrifices for the cause of God and who have made steady progress in their relationship as well as to those who have backslidden, which is evidence that discipline is an essential family trait.

These examples also show that God is in control of all events. The circumstances in each were widely different, yet God was overseeing the entire process. When we recall that God is simultaneously disciplining all of his children, in one way or another, we should marvel at the capabilities of God.

These examples also show the love of God. An earthly father shows his love by teaching his children the best way to live, which at times will cause pain and denial of the sense of his favour. In a far higher way, so it is with our God.

Each of these examples was painful, which is also what the writer of Hebrews says about discipline. But each of them had a purpose, designed to make God’s people holy.

The Benefits of Family Discipline🔗

Why does God discipline us? The overarching answer is to make us holy. But we can break that down into some specific details.

Trials reveal to ourselves that we have grace. What graces should show themselves during such occasions? An obvious one is patience or longsuffering. Another is loyalty, which is an expression of love on the altar of dedication.

Trials enable us to identify priorities in life. Said the psalmist: ‘Before I was afflicted I went astray, but now I obey your word’ (Psalm 119:67). He learned that God and his revealed will must come first.

The trials we face are preparing us for something. The ‘something’ may be in this life; many a Christian can look back and see how God was preparing him for future work by putting him through a difficult period. But the ‘something’ may be not discovered until the next life:

In this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials. These have come so that your faith — of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire — may be proved genuine and may result in praise, glory and honour when Jesus Christ is revealed.1 Peter 1:6-7

In Romans 8:18, Paul affirms that ‘our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us’. Therefore he could also write, in 2 Corinthians 4:16-18:

Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.

Further, discipline shows to us the primary focus of God, which is to conform each of his sons to the likeness of their elder Brother. In a way beyond our comprehension, difficulties and adversities gradually change us, under God’s Hand, into imitators of Jesus. Perhaps this is why Paul was willing to embrace suffering for the gospel.

The writer to the Hebrews depicts adversity as a seed that produces a bountiful harvest of righteousness and peace. This refers both to our attitude and our behaviour. The Beatitudes, which contain references to the peacemakers and the desperate for righteousness, also indicate that opposition and persecution will also be experienced.

The Response to Family Discipline🔗

The original readers of Hebrews were in danger of making a wrong response. The form of discipline that they were receiving involved persecution and suffering, and their response was to become less devoted to Christ, to become anxious at what would happen to them, to turn back to Judaism. Frustration and disappointment, combined with perplexity, made them wonder if it was worth continuing the Christian race.

Octavius Winslow states that ‘the greatest of all afflictions is an affliction lost’. That ‘affliction sent as the servant of God, and yet not permitted to fulfil its mission of love in the soul’s experience’.

The author of Hebrews points out two wrong responses: despising the discipline and fainting under the discipline. To despise is to treat as of little consequence. We do this when we don’t pay attention to what is happening. Inattention can mean ignoring, dismissing our troubles as inconsequential or pointless; it can also mean a form of stoicism in which we grit our teeth and hope the troubles will pass quickly. To regard our difficulties in this way is to loose an opportunity to discern the Father’s faithful love, to admire the Father’s wisdom, and to experience the Father’s grace in our difficulties.

The other wrong response is to faint under the pressure. This attitude is often revealed in a complaining outlook when we question the usefulness of a specific trial. The context of the writer’s comments is that the Christian life is like an athletic race. We can imagine a steeplechase runner coming to the next obstacle and asking, ‘Who put that hurdle in such a ridiculous place?’ The hurdle was not put there as a barrier to stop the athlete taking part in the race; instead it is an essential part of the race. Complaining about it would not be a sign of a dedicated athlete.

If these are the wrong responses to adversity, what are the correct responses? There should be grateful submission to our Father’s providence because he is allowing it for our temporal and eternal good. His love, wisdom and power are involved at every stage.

There should be anticipation of receiving adequate supplies of heavenly grace for each situation. Just as his grace has met every need in the past, so God will supply all our needs out of his riches in glory. Every stage in life is beyond our own resources but we will never encounter a situation that God cannot enable us to deal with in a spiritual way.

In addition, there will be a communal aspect, as described in verses 12 and 13: ‘Therefore, strengthen your feeble arms and weak knees. “Make level paths for your feet,” so that the lame may not be disabled, but rather healed.’ The writer is still using the athletics imagery from the beginning of the chapter. They are all in the same race, and at each stage in it we have to help those who are finding the way hard. Troubles come not only to show our own dedication to finish the race, but also to help others.

And there should be resolve to keep on going in the Christian life, to ‘run with perseverance the race marked out for us’, imitating our Elder Brother, who ‘for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God’. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinful men, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.

Add new comment

(If you're a human, don't change the following field)
Your first name.
(If you're a human, don't change the following field)
Your first name.

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.