Scripture: Hebrews 12:1-17
The exercise of discipline in the topic refers to Christian parents’ exercising discipline upon their covenant children.
The discipline of our children is an important aspect of our keeping God’s covenant. The reason is that God calls believing parents to rear their children. This rearing of their children includes discipline. God uses this rearing, with its discipline, to carry out His covenant purpose of saving the covenant children of believing parents.
The importance of discipline is shown in Hebrews 12:1-17 , particularly verses 9 and 10: “Furthermore we have had fathers of our flesh which corrected us, and we gave them reverence: shall we not much rather be in subjection unto the Father of spirits, and live? For they verily for a few days chastened us after their own pleasure; but he for our profit, that we might be partakers of his holiness.”
The passage refers to, and gives instruction about, parental discipline. “We have had fathers of our flesh which corrected us.” Even more importantly, the passage makes a comparison between God’s discipline of His children and our discipline of our children. This comparison is the main thought in the passage.
The Spirit has a practical purpose in Hebrews 12 . This practical purpose is that God’s people will submit to God’s painful chastisements of them. It was necessary that the Spirit encourage the Hebrew Christians along these lines because those Hebrew Christians were becoming wearied and faint in their minds on account of the severity of their chastisement (v. 3). Such discouragement as the Hebrew Christians were experiencing is always a danger for someone who is being chastised by God, as the proverb quoted in Hebrews 12:5 and 6 indicates. The danger is that a discouraged Christian is ready to despise the chastening of the Lord and to faint as he is being rebuked by God.
In order that the chastised Christian not faint but rather submit to the chastisement, the writer of Hebrews reminds Christians that their troubles are sent them by God and that those troubles serve a good purpose in their life.
Our troubles are not unfortunate accidents. They are not the result of blind fate. Neither are they punishments inflicted upon us by a wrathful God. Rather, evils in the life of the Christian are chastisements.
A chastisement is some evil, that is, a painful event, administered by God for our correction from some sin; or for our development unto spiritual maturity; or for our general increase of holiness in view of the corruption of our sinful nature, which we retain.
God’s motive in this chastisement is love for us, not hatred. God’s goal with this chastisement is salvation, not damnation. In these ways, chastisement differs radically from punishment. Punishment may be the very same kind of evil in the life of the ungodly, but the punishment is motivated by God’s hatred of that reprobate, ungodly sinner. It is intended to inflict upon him the penalty, in part, of his sin. And it has as its purpose, as indeed eternal hell will have as its purpose, the destruction of the sinner. God punishes the reprobate ungodly. He chastises the elect believer.
Evils in the life of the Christian, such is the teaching of Hebrews 12, are an aspect of the wise and good rearing of His beloved children by God in His capacity as their heavenly Father. To drive home this comforting truth, the passage compares God’s dealings with us to an earthly father’s dealings with his children. The passage does this already in verse 7: “If ye endure chastening, God dealeth with you as with sons [and here comes the comparison];for what son is he whom the father chasteneth not?” This comparison is made again in verses 9 and 10, quoted above.
The passage makes a comparison between the heavenly Father and us earthly fathers with regard to one aspect of the activity of fatherhood. The one aspect of fatherhood that is the point of the comparison is chastisement, or what we more commonly call discipline. God disciplines us, and we discipline our sons and daughters.
This comparison between God and earthly fathers is of the greatest importance practically for our discipline of our children in the Christian, or covenant, family.
Parents often ask, “What is our calling with regard to the discipline of our children? Must we discipline? If so, how are we to discipline? What is good discipline in a family?”
In the covenant, parents are helped often, and should be helped, by the example of their own parents. The power of this example ought not to be minimized. Those who study such matters in the world tell us that child abuse is passed on from generation to generation. If one has himself been abused in one way or another, particularly by his own parents, he will likely be abusive to his children. And then his children will be abusive to their children. And this evil runs on in the line of generations. But the opposite is also true. Good discipline is passed on from generation to generation. The example that we set to our sons and daughters bears fruit to generations following.
Nevertheless, the example of parents, even Christian parents, is not infallible. For Christian parents are imperfect. This imperfection of Christian parents in the discipline of their children is recognized in Hebrews 12 . With reference to parents, the writer of the book says that they discipline “after their own pleasure” (v. 10). We need an infallible guide.
Scripture alone is this infallible guide for right discipline. Scripture speaks of child rearing, particularly of discipline. Scripture speaks about discipline with infallible wisdom and authority. This, by the way, is comforting to anyone who may have had a father or a mother who set a dreadful example in the discipline of their children. It is by no means necessary that such a one also abuse his own children. This pattern must be broken. This patterncan be broken in the life of one who has been converted to Christ. Then the guide of his own discipline of his children cannot be his own parents, but will be the clear, authoritative teaching of the Word of God.
The Bible is not a manual of parental discipline, although the book of Proverbs is devoted in large part to child rearing. But instruction concerning discipline is found everywhere in Scripture. It is found not only in the admonitions but also in the history. Both the history and the specific admonitions regarding discipline warn against bad discipline and exhort to good discipline.
One aspect of the Bible’s instruction concerning discipline is often neglected. This is the example, or pattern, of good discipline that God sets by His own fatherly discipline of His children. How God disciplines is revealed in Scripture. And our discipline of our children must reflect and pattern itself after God’s discipline of His children. This is the importance of Hebrews 12 with regard particularly to its comparison between God’s discipline of His children and our discipline of our children.
There is still another reason for the importance of Hebrews 12 with regard to the exercise of discipline. Inasmuch as Hebrews 12 compares our discipline of our children to God’s discipline of His children, the passage is useful to those who are not parents. Some are not parents. Some of us here are no longer parents with children at home to be disciplined. Some are never going to be parents. This does not imply that this passage is of no benefit tosuch persons. Inasmuch as the passage is structured as a comparison between God’s discipline of His children and our discipline of our children, the passage is useful to all Christians to instruct us concerning God’s exercise of discipline upon us.
The chastisement of Hebrews 12 is the infliction of some pain upon the child because of the child’s wrong doing. Chastisement in this chapter is discipline, not in the broader sense of the entire rearing of the child, but in the narrower sense of rebuking a child, or spanking a child, or of taking away some privilege from the child. That this is the reference of chastisement in the passage is plain from verses 6 and 11, where the apostle speaks of painfulthings that God has brought upon His Hebrew children. In verse 6 we read of scourging or whipping. Verse 11 states that “no chastening ... seemeth to be joyous, but grievous,” to which every child who has ever received a good spanking says a hearty, “Amen.”
Such discipline, or chastisement, is necessary. Every believing parent must discipline. He must discipline every one of his children. Now I am quick to add that, although parents must discipline in the sense of administering painful chastisement, although it is true that parents must discipline every one of their children, it is also the case that parents must not, in an ironclad, inflexible way, discipline every one of their children in the same way, eventhough the offence may be the same. Children are different. Parents must exercise discipline with a wisdom that recognizes the differences in their children. One child may be of such a sensitive nature that a sharp rebuke reduces that child sincerely to tears and brings that child to a heartfelt repentance. Another child may have quite a different disposition, so that a mere rebuke makes no headway against that child’s sinfulness, but that a spanking is necessary, and a hard spanking at that, that results in the child’s roaring. We had that, I may say, in our own family of nine children. One child was of such a tender disposition that a rebuke (and not a particularly sharp rebuke) reduced that child to tears. As a result, that child did not receive so many spankings. The other children noticed that. (This brings up another important aspect of child-rearing: fairness is required in the family. Any unfairness is immediately noted by the children.) To this day, although all of those involved are mature and have their own families, the other children will say to this particular child, “You were the favorite child. Did you ever get a spanking in your life?” Well, this child did. But this child did not need that type of discipline. This child needed discipline, to be sure, but not that kind of discipline.
Nevertheless, discipline is necessary for all the children. The evidence for this lies on the very surface of the passage. The necessity of discipline for every child is the thought of verse 7. It is simply unthinkable that there is a child whom a father does not chasten at all: “what son is he whom the father chasteneth not?” Chastisement is simply part of the relationship of father/child. This necessity of discipline for every child is emphasized in verse 8. The only possibility of not disciplining some one is that the person (and the reference is to one who seems to be a child of God in the church) is illegitimate, a bastard. Incidentally, I note that the Holy Spirit teaches that there are two kinds of members of the visible church and two kinds of children among the physical children of believing parents. They are not all children of God. Some are legitimate children, spiritually begotten by the grace of God in Jesus Christ. Others in the visible church may be bastards. They are illegitimate, they are not children of God at all.
The necessity of discipline is brought out strongly in the passage in a way that may not be so obvious. It is brought out by the word that is used for discipline throughout Hebrews 12 . The word that is used is a word that means “child rearing,” or “education” in the full sense. It is the Greek word from which we get our word “pedagogy.” Parents are to educate their children. But this word is used by the Holy Spirit in Hebrews 12 to refer, as we have seen, to one specific aspect of child rearing, namely, discipline.
So fundamental a part of the upbringing of our children is discipline that discipline is virtually identified in the passage with child rearing. Certainly there cannot possibly be good child rearing without discipline.
There is an application of this basic scriptural truth to the training and teaching of children in the schools. Regardless of the wisdom of the learned who govern the state schools of our nations, there can be no effective rearing of children in the schools without chastisement, without discipline. The whole project must be a failure, apart from all other reasons, if there is no discipline in the schools.
Discipline is necessary. Holy Scripture condemns much modern educational thinking and saves believing parents from the evils of this modern educational thinking. In the world, the theory prevails that children are not to be spanked and are not even to be rebuked. This permissive thinking governs many homes as well as many of the schools. But sometimes this thinking also appears in the churches. A member of the churches will argue that it isenough to teach his children the right way. If this is done, discipline is unnecessary. Another member of the church will simply neglect or ignore the discipline of his children altogether. In reality, this refusal to discipline, or this opposition to discipline, or this neglect of discipline, is a criticism of the wisdom of God. God finds it necessary to discipline His children. To contend that discipline is unnecessary in the rearing of our children is an implicit criticism of the wisdom of God.
This, of course, is what is at the bottom of the modern educational theory. In every area of life, man knows better than God. In every area of life man deliberately sets aside the will of God and replaces it with his own will. The consequences are obvious for all to see.
Sinfulness of Children
The reason for the necessity of the discipline of our children is their sinfulness. Our sinfulness is the reason why it is necessary for God to discipline us. The discipline of us by God is part of our great struggle, our great striving, against sin, as the apostle describes it in verse 4. That God’s discipline of us is required and necessary because of our sinfulness is implied when we read in the passage that the purpose of the divine discipline is that wepartake of God’s holiness (v. 10). This is also the reason why discipline is necessary for our children. Even though our children are covenant children, they still have a depraved nature. Their wicked nature expresses itself in wicked speech and behavior. This wicked speech and behavior are then opposed and checked and overcome by the administration of discipline.
In locating the necessity of discipline in the sinfulness of the children, Scripture condemns the error that is at the root of much educational thinking today. This is the thinking that the children are basically good or, at least, not depraved. To put it in theological terms, the error at the bottom of much educational thinking today, denying the necessity of discipline, is the rejection of the doctrine of total depravity and rejection of the related doctrine of original sin. Christian parents, as much as unbelieving parents, pass on to their children their depraved nature, a nature that is totally corrupt, wholly inclined to all evil, and incapable of any good. In fact, this is the only thing that Christian parents pass on to their children. The new nature in Christ that God promises to give our elect children in His promise to be the God of us and our children is His work, His gift, and His operation of supernatural grace. But when God regenerates our children and converts them, these children retain still, as long as they live, the corrupt nature that they have received from Adam. The world does not know the doctrine of total depravity and the doctrine of original sin. Therefore, the world maintains that children are good.
Strange to say, we can be attracted to this very same error, namely, that we view our children as good, or, if not good, then, at least, as not very bad. Although we confess total depravity and faithfully apply total depravity to children in general and to the neighbor's children in particular, we sometimes cannot apply the doctrine of total depravity to our own children. Our own children are good. Our own children are always right. Our own children are never wrong. Whenever our children are involved in some trouble, immediately we take the side of our children and go to war against any with whom they may be in conflict. This is foolish behavior, that is contrary to the truth that is at the bottom of the requirement in Hebrews 12 that we discipline our children. As Oliver Cromwell once said to disputing Puritan ministers in his entourage who were busy dividing what he was trying to unite, “I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, consider the possibility that you may be wrong.” So also we parents with regard to our children ought to consider the possibility that our children are wrong.
Discipline is necessary. The question now is, Whose responsibility is it to administer this discipline? According to Hebrews 12 , the responsibility is that of the children’s parents and, specifically, that of the father. It is as the Father of spirits that God chastises His children, and it is fathers of our flesh who corrected us (v. 9). Discipline is a parental duty. Discipline is part of the requirement of parents that they also take upon themselves in the vow of the baptism of their children. When we baptize our children, we vow that we will bring them up in the fear of the Lord, in the doctrine of the church in which they are baptized. This upbringing very definitely includes disciplining our children. It is the parents’ responsibility not only to teach their children, to send their children to catechism, and, wherever possible, to send them to the Christian school, but also to chastise the child.
This implies the authority of the parents over their children. Parents have a right to inflict pain upon their children. More importantly still, parents have the right to direct their children’s lives. For this, after all, is the reason for inflicting the pain of discipline. There is no sense in exercising discipline in itself. But the application of discipline has as its goal directing that child’s life in a certain way. When the parent disciplines, he says to the child in that powerful language of the rebuke or of the stick, “Not in that way you shall go, but in this way you shall go.” For this, parents have authority. They have authority from God. This is why in Hebrews 12 fathers are mentioned. Fathers are mentioned, for one thing, in order to impress upon us, especially at the beginning of the twenty-first century, that every Christian family ought to have a father in the home. Now God Himself sometimes acts so that this is not a possibility. Then God will care for the Christian mother, with the help especially of the elders and some other male members in the church, so that that mother can be father and mother both. This is the exception, however. The rule is that the Christian home shall have a father. And the rule is as well that that father will be a real father, a father characterized by strength, a father who is the real head of the home, a father who exercisesauthority—wisely, rightly, and in the love of God, but who exercises authority.
Is it not striking that even the world, which has jettisoned the wisdom of the Word of God, now recognizes the importance, the very great importance, of what they call a “father-figure” in the home. The world itself can see that the results are disastrous in those homes, those many homes (at least in North America) where there is not a father and never will be a father. Not only in the formation of gangs, but also in the psychological and ethical disturbances of children who come from such homes, the importance of the biblical wisdom of the father in the family is made plain.
Fathers are mentioned because Scripture wants to underscore that parents have authority over their children to direct their lives in discipline. Fathers are mentioned in the passage also because, finally, the responsibility of the discipline of his children is his—even though his wife helps and even though, as a matter of fact, the wife does most of the disciplining. The wife and mother ought to do much of the disciplining, simply because she is there withthe children more than the father is throughout the day. There is something wrong when the mother never administers discipline—partly because the effectiveness of discipline is that it is administered when the offence is committed and not hours or days later, but also because in this case the mother is saying to the children, “Wait till your father gets home,” and the children learn to dread the father and his coming home because all that means for them is that finally they get the spanking that they ought to have had six hours earlier. Nevertheless, though the mother administers much of the discipline, the responsibility for the discipline is the father’s. God does give the parents authority over their children. Here Scripture strikes at another serious evil in much of educational thinking today. This is the evil that holds that no one has the right to direct the life of another. Not even parents have the right to direct the life of children. Children are autonomous.
Lively consciousness of their authority is necessary on the part of the parents for the faithful discipline of their children. This authority is implied in the fifth commandment of the law of God. If children are to honor their parents, parents have the authority that ought to be honored. For the exercise of this authority parents will answer to God in the day of judgment. Not only will husbands and wives answer to God for the keeping of their vow to each other in marriage, but they will also answer to God for the vow, whether explicit or implicit, concerning the discipline of their children.
Parental discipline requires parental oversight. This means that parents live with their children, actually live with their children. Much of the breakdown of discipline today stems from the breakup of family life. Parents are not there in the home to know their children’s weakness, behavior, and needs. Obviously, divorce is one instance, one cause of parents not living with their children. In Malachi 2 , where the prophet is admonishing the men of Israelfor divorcing their wives and remarrying others, God reminds those men in Judah, as He reminds men in the church today, of one of the great purposes that God had in the beginning when He made Adam and Eve one flesh. Malachi asks the question, “Wherefore one?” Wherefore did God make the two one? And he answers his own question, “That he might seek a godly seed” ( Mal. 2:15 ). One of the great purposes of God with marriage fromthe very beginning was children, not just children in general, but godly children, children who might rule in the world under Himself, to His glory, so that the creation would be devoted to the glory of God. The application of this truth by the prophet to his own time makes plain that still today, in the faithful marriages of His people, one of God’s great purposes usually is that He seeks in their marriages a godly seed. Divorce, as even the world recognizes,is one of the main reasons for the destruction of children—the physical and psychological and, we would add, spiritual destruction of the children.
This is one reason why Christian husbands and wives who are having severe trouble ought to stay together in their marriage. I have had it that a couple came to me, members of the church, who for years and years, as became evident, had grown apart and had learned cordially to hate each other and who were bound and determined to divorce. Really they came to the church to get the church’s sanction of their purpose to divorce. After both of them had poured out their litany of woes, which were intended to convince me that they certainly must divorce and that even God Himself would not require two such warriors to live together any longer in marriage, one of them asked, “You wouldn’t expect us to stay together for the sake of the children, would you?” “Ah, yes,” I answered. “Now finally you talk some sense. Here we can make a beginning. Exactly so. If you don’t stay together for any other reason, you selfish people, then stay together for the flesh and blood of your own bodies, who are at the same time to be regarded as the covenant children of God. Sacrifice yourselves. Sacrifice your own happiness. Then we will work to see to it whether the Spirit of God won’t bring you to repentance and reconciliation so that you can enjoy living with each other again. But do not forget the children.” God hates divorce ( Mal. 2:16 ). And the true church hates divorce. And every genuine Christian ought to hate divorce, among other reasons, because, apart from some extraordinary grace of God, it will destroy all the children. Parents must live together to rear their children rightly and to discipline their children.
Not only divorce, but also mothers, with children at home, who work outside the home find it very difficult, if not impossible, to discipline the children.
There is also the fault of many fathers today who, at the end of the day, rather than come home, to spend the rest of the day with their family, are out on the golf course or amusing themselves with some other entertainment or taking on some other job, not because that is necessary for the support of the family, but because they are intent on amassing wealth.
For good, on-going, effective discipline the mother must be a worker at home and the father must make time with his family after work and on the weekends.
Still more, the context of effective covenant discipline is peaceful life together as a family, family-life as fellowship with God and with each other. It is not enough that parents live under the same roof with their children. They must live under the same roof with their children in warm and healthy communion with their children. They must live with their children as being one with them in Jesus Christ.
Is it not the case that the nature and real power of God’s effective discipline of us is the context of His warm communion with us in love? The afflictions God sends us are not imposed simply by some almighty sovereign. They are laid upon us by our Father, who loves us and with whom we live in friendship. What is the climate, the atmosphere, the day-to-day quality of our home? Is it fellowship in which, although we are father and they are children,we live with them and in a way share life with them, as our beloved children?
Discipline of children is necessary. The question is: How are parents to exercise this discipline? The answer in Hebrews 12 to our “How?” is implied in the purpose of discipline. The purpose of the discipline of children according to Hebrews 12 is the children's holiness. This is the purpose of God’s discipline of us. So we read in verse 10: “but he for our profit, that we might be partakers of his [God’s] holiness.” The purpose of God’s disciplineof His children is the profit of those who are disciplined, our good. This profit consists of our partaking of God’s holiness. This cannot mean that by chastisement God’s children become holy for the first time. We already are God’s children—elect, redeemed, and born again by the Spirit—before He chastises us. Our being children is the reason why He chastises us. God does not chastise people to make them His children. God chastises people because they are His children. We are already holy by the sanctifying Spirit before God chastises. But we are only imperfectly holy. As the Heidelberg Catechism says in Question 114, we have only a very small beginning of the new obedience.
Chastisement of His children by God is the means by which the holiness of God’s children is preserved from the power of sin and by which holiness in them is increased. By aiming at our holiness with His discipline, God in His chastisement has nothing less than our life as its purpose—our spiritual, eternal life. This is verse 9: we should “be in subjection unto the Father of spirits [in the matter of chastisement, you understand], and live.” Withoutholiness no one will see the Lord (v. 14). And without discipline there will be no holiness.
God’s purpose in the chastisement of His children establishes what our purpose must be in the chastisement of our children. Our purpose in chastising our children must be their profit. But their profit is not their pleasure, but their holiness. Thus our purpose in disciplining our children is nothing less than their life. Do we want our children to live? Do we want them to live spiritually? Do we want them to live eternally? Do we want them to live in the day of Jesus Christ? Then we discipline, because discipline maintains and preserves and increases holiness.
I note in passing (this was what I was driving at a moment ago when I emphasized that God does not chastise people to make them His children; He chastises them because they are His children), that this implies a fundamental truth about the children of believing parents from their earliest infancy. We are to regard our children as the children of God, elect, redeemed, and regenerated, from their earliest infancy. This is not because all our children are necessarily elect and saved. We know better. Hebrews 12 speaks of an Esau, who was reprobated before he was even born, according to Romans 9 . But it pleases God, as the Puritans said, to cast the lines of election in the generations of believing parents. It pleases God to gather some of His church out of the families of believers. What God means when He says, I will “be a God unto thee, and to thy seed after thee” ( Gen. 17:7 ), and, on the day of Pentecost, “The promise is ... to your children” (Acts 2:39), is not that God may someday save one or two of our children and be the God of our children when they finally grow up and make a decision for Christ, but that He is the God of our children as children. The promise of God is to us and to our children as children, infant children.
This is implied by the calling parents have to chastise their children with the same purpose that God has in chastising His children. We do not chastise our children to try to make them holy, children of God. You cannot make people holy children of God by spanking them or rebuking them. If they are not already holy children, spanking and rebuking have the effect of embittering them. But we are to discipline our children because they are children of God. In them God has already worked His holiness. This makes for the possibility and reality of the effectiveness of discipline in maintaining this holiness and in increasing this holiness.
What I am saying is this: Parental discipline of children does absolutely no good if the children are not saved. Neither does instruction of the children do any good if the children are not saved. What fruit can there be upon it? What spiritual good can come from it? If I were convinced about my children that they were all unregenerated until such a time as they grew up and might be converted in their teenage years or later, all I would ever say to them is, “Repent, repent, repent,” hoping that God would make that effectual in their salvation.
God disciplines us because we are His children. He calls covenant parents to discipline their children, who are the children of God.
Then our discipline is fruitful because the Spirit of God is in their hearts. This is what the covenant promise means: “I will be the God of you and your children.”
Not all of the children of believing parents are elect, redeemed, and regenerated children of God. One way that those who are reprobate children show their reprobation is by wickedly despising the discipline of their parents and hardening themselves against it. There may also be some elect children who rebel, who even rebel for a long time. Think of the prodigal son. This is why parents with wayward children must not give up on their children too readily, but at the very least (and this is quite something) pray for them that God will turn them. But there may be reprobate, ungodly children of believers. Then they refuse the rebuke, they ignore the discipline, and they walk wickedly. They are covenant breakers, not in the sense that God established His covenant with them personally by establishing that bond with them in their hearts or by promising to them personally salvation. But they arecovenant breakers in the sense that they are born and raised in the sphere of the covenant. The duties of the covenant are brought to them and, knowingly and deliberately, they transgress the covenant and the covenant commandments.
With regard to such children, whether elect children who for a while are rebellious or with regard to reprobate children, when the children refuse the admonition and discipline of the parents, the parents ought to take their child to the elders of the church. Keeping the covenant as the people of God means that we are members of a church that has elders. These elders discipline the members of the congregation according to the Word of God. Eldershelp in the discipline of unruly children in the congregation. Parents are never in the position that they throw up their hands and say, “We can’t do anything with our children.” We must never allow ourselves to be put in that position. Sometimes we feel that our backs are put to the wall. But we are never in a position that we can do nothing. We can always do something. When they become of age, we take a rebellious child to the elders of thechurch, for them to work with and for them to discipline in the sense of administering church discipline, so that finally these children are excommunicated from the church. Then the parents themselves refuse fellowship with these children, to drive home the discipline. They have contact with them, they speak to them, telling them to repent and be converted; but they break off fellowship. Parents, then, will cooperate with the church in the ecclesiastical discipline of their own children. This is really what Moses called parents in such a position to do in Deuteronomy 21:18-21 . If they had a son who was a drunkard and rebellious and would not listen to his parents’ admonition, the parents were to take their son to the elders and, in those days, the elders would stone that rebellious son to death. Today, the elders of the church exercise the discipline of excommunication.
But the purpose of our discipline is to correct the sins in the lives of our children and to direct the children to consecrate themselves to God. We must explain this to our children too. We must say to our child, “I am rebuking you, or I am spanking you, because of your sin. This is what God requires.” When God chastises us, He makes known what it is in our life for which He is chastising us. This means that it is essential in discipline, that we bring our child to the cross, when our child is penitent, for forgiveness. It is essential that the father of the home, as the servant of Christ, say to the child, “I forgive you in the name of Christ, and Christ forgives you, and you are reconciled to me again.” Father brings the gospel of the grace of the cross of Christ.
The discipline of children implies a standard of right and wrong, as well as a goal the children must reach. After all, it is an awesome responsibility to direct the life of another human being. They must know what the standard is: the law of God. They must know what the goal of the direction is: the mature man or woman of Christ.
If the purpose of our discipline is the children’s profit, our discipline will be consistent. Discipline always suffers from inconsistency. Day after day a child may be disrespectful, to his mother especially, and is permitted to get away with it. Then one day when we are irritable the child has a big mouth, and we explode in anger and give him a sound spanking. This is inconsistent. The trouble is that we are not really aiming at the child’s holiness. If we were, we would discipline the child the first time he was disrespectful and every time that he was disrespectful. The trouble with us is that all too often, as Hebrews 12:10 says, we discipline “after [our] own pleasure.” This is true. I may confess that one of the sorrows of my life, as I now become old, is the imperfections of my own discipline of my children. I am very thankful that there is a cross of Jesus Christ for imperfect Christian fathers. I am very thankful, thankful beyond all telling, that although I recognize that God uses the imperfect discipline of us imperfect fathers to save His people, the work of saving our children is the work of God and not the work of imperfect fathers. It is the work of God alone and not the work of God and us imperfect fathers. That is a painful line in Hebrews 12 , they for a time “chastened us after their own pleasure” (v. 10). We must not discipline after our own pleasure. Scripture, of course, is not approving of this. It is merely recognizing what all too often is the case. Our discipline is weak and poor. In contrast, God’s discipline is strong and good.
The argument of Hebrews is this: If we submitted to the imperfect discipline of our parents, all the more we ought to submit to the perfect discipline of our heavenly Father. We must not chasten a child because he bothered us. We must not chasten a child because we want to vent our anger on him for provoking us. We must not discipline our children because they fail to achieve certain selfish ends that we have for them, for example, that they will shine academically and educationally, putting unreasonable demands upon our children. Never must we discipline for those reasons. The goal of discipline is not our profit, but the child’s profit. The standard of discipline is not what seems good to us, but what seems good to God as found in His law. The motive is not self-love—we must watch out for that in our rearing of our children—but the love of our child.
Since the purpose of discipline is the child’s holiness, it is implied that the motive of the disciplining parent is love, love for the child for God’s sake. This is expressed in verse 6 of Hebrews 12, the quotation of Proverbs 3:12 , where the motive of God in chastising His children is said to be love: “whom the Lord loveth he chasteneth.” Just as God’s motive in chastening us is love, love for us, so must our motive for chastening our children be love. Then, not just love for them as our flesh and blood—natural love—but love for them as God’s children! Every time a father lays a hand on his child, he ought to look at that hand and see that hand as the hand of God applied to the little child of God, so that in our discipline God is very really disciplining His children. But our motive must be love. Love seeks the good of the be-loved. Love acts to achieve this good (in this case, holiness). Since this good comes through discipline, love disciplines. There is no opposition between love and discipline. To say so is to accuse God of being unloving.
But we parents must see to it that love is our motive in the discipline of our children. Love is not the motive if we discipline in a rage. Love is not the motive if we strike out with heavy blows and sarcasm to destroy the child. Love is not the motive if we discipline unfairly. Love is not the motive if our oversight of our children is too rigorous.
Love is not the motive if we are always criticizing our children and never praising them. Some Christian parents are mistaken here. Some have said, “I don’t praise my child because that will tend to make the child proud.” Does God praise His children? Does God incite godly behavior in His children by praising? What an amazing thing! He works in us to do these good works. Then, when we do the good work in our sinful, imperfect way, He praises us for the good work and thus encourages us. God must be a pattern to us in this respect also.
What does my child see when I discipline? Does she see love? Does she know, amidst her tears, that I love her? In twenty-five years as a pastor before I became a teacher in the seminary, I saw in the congregations as many children ruined by unloving harshness as I saw ruined by the laxity of an Eli. There is an urgent warning to fathers in Colossians 3:21 : “Fathers, provoke not your children to anger, lest they be discouraged.” Parents must take pains to assure their children that their motive in discipline is love. Children joke about this, not at the time, but afterwards, “I wish you didn’t love me so much.” Nevertheless, disciplining parents must assure them of their love when they discipline. Love must permeate our entire relationship with them. Love must control the manner of our chastisement of them. Parents must tell the child of their love when they chasten, especially afterwards,taking the child on their lap, speaking of their purpose in the holiness of the child. God does. God takes us on His lap after He chastises us. He says to us (listen to it in Hebrews 12 ): “Whom the Lord loveth he chasteneth, and scourgeth every son whom he receiveth” (v. 6). Oh, we grown-up children of God need to know this, especially in time of painful chastisement. We need to hear Him say in the gospel, by the Spirit in our hearts, “I love you inthis chastisement. Because I loved you, I whipped you. Because you are my beloved child, I discipline you.” So let covenant parents discipline, knowing in addition that we have only a few days. The author of the epistle to the Hebrews speaks of this, too: “our earthly fathers for a few days” (v. 10)—just a little while we have them at the age and size that we can discipline them. So let us discipline them.
This is the calling of parents in the covenant.
There is also a calling to covenant children in this matter of discipline. First of all, the application is to all of us who are children of God, subject to discipline. This is the main practical purpose of Hebrews 12 . The main practical purpose is not the calling of parents to administer discipline, but the calling of children to receive discipline. The great calling to us grown-up children is to receive the discipline of the Lord. Do not despise His chastisement. Is He chastising you or me? Is it a very painful thing? Is it something altogether unpleasant? Are you roaring because of this chastisement of God, day in and day out? Do not despise it. Do not be embittered by it. Receive this chastening of the Lord as from your heavenly Father, in His love, for your profit and holiness.
But now to you young people and children: Do not despise or rebel against the discipline of your parents. Receive it submissively. Reverence your parents even as they are giving you a spanking or rebuking you. Yield to it, so that that discipline does its work in your life: holiness without which you, nor anyone, will see the Lord.