October 7, 2022

Discipline and Destiny

Recently I was conversing with a professing Christian who expressed a strong aversion to the “God of the Old Testament.” In particular, he found God’s law distasteful, harsh, and offensive. In his view, the God of the Old Testament was overly concerned with punishment and judgement, a God who had given a law that “didn’t work” in history since punishment for sin was not an appropriate motivator. He juxtaposed Yahweh, the holy God of law and justice, with faith and love in the Jesus of the New Testament. This man’s ignorance of Scripture was profound, and yet he regarded his personal judgments, idea of justice, and moral sensibilities to be more righteous than God Himself.

This belief is a kind of Marcionism, an ancient heresy that dismissed the Old Testament and its God as someone different from the God of the New Testament, as well as antinomianism. It falsely divides both God and the scriptures and makes for itself an idol, a God of our imagination that our sinful hearts would prefer to the living God. It is rife within Western churches today and is highly destructive of the family, church discipline and our cultural life. In new and unexpected forms, idolatry is alive and well in the church. If we live for ourselves in rejection of God’s law-Word and seek to establish our own word instead, we are idolaters no matter which church we attend.

Interestingly, the apostle Paul describes genuine conversion as a turning away from idols, from creations of our own hands or imaginations, “to serve the living and true God” (1 Thess. 1:9). The hard thing for many to accept today, even in the church, is that the God revealed in the totality of Scripture not only does not contradict himself, but is totally righteous and just, with whom there is no shadow of turning“ He changes not. He is righteous, holy, just, merciful, and loving. He is the living God. There is no other God, and no amount of manipulation on our part is going to change that. As such, the apostle John appeals to the church, “Little children, guard yourselves from idols” (1 John 5:21).

The reality is that there is no contradiction between God’s law and His love in His self-revelation or in our lives, and whenever we seek to assert one, we are calling forth delinquency, apostasy and ruin in our families, churches, and culture. What Paul makes clear is that God’s law of liberty (James 2:12) is also the law of love. It is this very law which tells us to love our neighbor as ourselves (cf. Lev. 19:18), a passage quoted by our Lord himself. In Romans 13:8-10 Paul explains:

Do not owe anyone anything, except to love one another, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. The commandments:

Do not commit adultery;
do not murder;
do not steal;
do not covet;

and whatever other commandments all are summed up by this: Love your neighbor as yourself. Love does no wrong to a neighbor. Love, therefore, is the fulfillment of the law.

If we are to truly love our neighbour and seek their good, we must obey God’s law with respect to them. If I say I love my neighbor but commit adultery with his wife or steal from him, I deceive myself and make God a liar. The apostle John explains the relationship equally powerfully:

This is how we know that we love God’s children when we love God and obey His commands. For this is what love for God is: to keep His commands. Now His commands are not a burden, because whatever has been born of God conquers the world. This is the victory that has conquered the world: our faith (1 John 5:2-4). 

The apostle teaches us here that a world-conquering faith recognizes the unity of God’s law and love. It sees that our primary motive for obedience to God’s law-Word is not fear of punishment, but love and delight in God and His righteousness – the kind that the Psalmist sings about in Psalm 19 and 119.

When the unity of law and love in God’s revelation is denied, the result is a collapse of discipline in the family, church, and society, leading to their radical decay. The word discipline is related to the word disciple, and it concerns a great deal more than mere punishment. True discipline is a systematic learning in our lives. The edition of Webster’s Dictionary released in 1828 cited the primary meaning of discipline as “education; instruction; cultivation and improvement, comprehending instruction in arts, sciences, correct sentiments, morals and manners, and due subordination to authority.”

God’s law (Torah) can be literally rendered as instruction. And the word instruction teaches us that we are “in structure” as human beings in God’s creation. The totality of life is expressed within God’s law-order, that is, His structure for human existence. God’s commands are given then for our discipleship, our discipline, our instruction, and our blessing. This is the very discipleship that Christ sent His people out into the world to bring to the nations:

All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe everything I have commanded you” (Matt 28: 18-20).

The most basic and important contexts of discipline that exist within society are the discipline of the family and that of the church – which involves first and foremost the teaching of God’s Word and learning submission to Christ and all His commandments. Biblically, part of discipline involves sanctions in family, church, and state. Paul makes clear, for example, that church discipline must be exercised regarding the unrepentant rebel against God’s law-Word in the church (1 Cor. 5:11-13). This discipline is a right and privilege that carries with it the purpose of the restoration of the offender to the church family and community. The state likewise is given a duty by God to exercise discipline in its own sphere by restraining wickedness, punishing evildoers, and rewarding the righteous (cf. Rom. 13:3-5. If God’s law is violated with impunity in human society, Paul invokes the civil use of God’s law:

But we know that the law is good, provided one uses it legitimately. We know that the law is not meant for a righteous person, but for the lawless and rebellious, for the ungodly and sinful, for the unholy and irreverent, for those who kill their fathers and mothers, for murderers, for the sexually immoral and homosexuals, for kidnappers, liars, perjurers, and for whatever else is contrary to the sound teaching based on the glorious gospel of the blessed God, which was entrusted to me (1 Tim. 1:8-11).

In the family we encounter the most foundational and basic form of instruction and discipline in human life. It is the love of parents for their children that should motivate their discipline – their teaching, nurture, instruction, cultivation and learning of subordination. One aspect of this is implementing consequences for delinquency and stubborn disobedience. In this sense, the family is also the best police force of any nation because the family protects children, by supervision and training, from criminals and sexual perverts and implements consequences for bad behaviour. Without this a society soon falls toward ruin.

This week I was watching a news broadcast after yet another mass stabbing incident in a British city. This criminality is now an endemic and calamitous problem in the United Kingdom. Children as young as 13 and 14 are stabbing each other in broad daylight for something as trivial as their smartphone. The root cause, which this major broadcaster remarkably acknowledged, is fatherlessness and the collapse of the family. Where the family ceases to practice discipline through instruction, nurture, cultivation and sanctions, the decay of society is unavoidable and rapid. Parents who love their children will therefore discipline them. This is the explicit teaching of the Bible in regard to God’s relationship to us as His children and the derivative discipline of parents:

And you have forgotten the exhortation that addresses you as sons:

My son, do not take the Lord’s discipline lightly or faint when you are reproved by Him, for the Lord disciplines the one He loves and punishes every son He receives. Endure suffering as discipline: God is dealing with you as sons. For what son is there that a father does not discipline? But if you are without disciplineâ which all receive, then you are illegitimate children and not sons. Furthermore, we had natural fathers discipline us, and we respected them. Should not we submit even more to the Father of spirits and live? For they disciplined us for a short time based on what seemed good to them, but He does it for our benefit, so that we can share His holiness. No discipline seems enjoyable at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it yields the fruit of peace and righteousness to those who have been trained by it. (Heb. 12:5-11)

God’s law-Word is a teaching device that instructs and disciples us in the right way to go, for our blessing and that of our neighbour. God instructs, guides, disciplines and at times punishes us as a righteous and holy father because He loves us. Law and love are therefore a unity in God’s order. We deny this unity and set God’s law aside at our peril. We can only share His holiness as a family, church, or nation when we accept and embrace His discipline and so become true disciples of Christ. Our acceptance or rejection of God’s discipline determines the destiny of families, churches, and nations.

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