Parental Discipline is Not the Same As Punishment
By Mark Benedict
Biblical discipline is different from punishment, which is the Bible teaches is reserved for those that have rejected God. Parents who speak of “punishing” their children have a misunderstanding of the Biblical concepts that are taught in Scripture. When Scripture makes distinctions and uses specific words in specific ways, we must be careful to understand the reasons for the distinctions. The Scriptures are clear that judgment and eternal punishment is reserved for unrepentant unbelievers who will be rejected at the final judgment. Christian’s works are judged for permanence and quality, but we have already been delivered from judgment and eternal punishment through faith in the atoning blood of Christ. Through God’s covenant promises, our children partake of parental discipline but we trust the working of grace in their lives will deliver them from the eternal punishment that God has reserved for the unbelieving, as Christ clearly described in the Gospels:
Luke 13:27-28 “But he will say, ‘I tell you, I do not know where you come from. Depart from me, all you workers of evil!’ In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth, when you see Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God but you yourselves cast out.”
Matthew 25: 41-46 “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. 42 For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ 44 Then they also will answer, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to you?’ 45 Then he will answer them, saying, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ 46 And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”
Below, in Psalm 73, we find the outpoured feelings of Asaph, a servant of God, temple musician, and a contemporary of King David who was responsible for the conduct of temple worship during the reign of David and his son, Solomon. Psalm 73 begins with Asaph expressing his envy of the easy life and prosperity enjoyed by the wicked, in contrast to his own daily experience of being constantly corrected by God with daily rebukes and chastisement.
“For I was envious of the foolish, when I saw the prosperity of the wicked…they have more than heart could wish.” Psalm 73:3, 7
“All in vain have I kept my heart clean and washed my hands in innocence. For all the day long I have been stricken and rebuked every morning.” Psalm 73:13-14
Asaph, when reviewing his daily experience found in common with many of God’s beloved children, that he seemed to be experiencing constant correction and rebuke from the Lord. When Asaph looked at the experience of people that he knew cared nothing about God’s truth (the “wicked”) he was discouraged by the easy lives they led. Comparing their experience and his own he found himself envying the wicked for their physical prosperity and freedom from the daily hardships so common to Asaph and the other children of God in his day. Asaph experienced daily the hand of God working to correct and improve his character through constant discipline, while the wicked lived in ease and accumulated great wealth. This distressed Asaph to the point where he was tempted to vent his frustration and complain to the people of God. But Asaph knew that his complaint would likely discourage the other children of God, so he kept his grief to himself and expressed it in his private prayers to God. But one day when he came to the Temple to do his priestly service God revealed himself in the sanctuary in a special way and Asaph suddenly saw the true situation of the wicked. They lived on the very precipice of God’s impending wrath and judgment. His whole attitude changed as he came to understand the reality that the wicked were just moments away from eternal destruction. Asaph had been chafing under the daily correction and training that God reserves only for his children, but he understood then that it was because God had rejected the wicked, He had given them over to prosperity and was reserving the wicked for the day of His wrath and punishment.
“Surely You set them in slippery places; You cast them down to destruction. Oh, how they are brought to desolation, as in a moment! They are utterly consumed with terrors.” Psalm 73:18-19
God Trains His Children with Parental Discipline, But He Will Punish the Unrepentant Wicked
“It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you as sons. For what son is there whom his father does not discipline? 8 If you are left without discipline, in which all have participated, then you are illegitimate children and not sons. 9 Besides this, we have had earthly fathers who disciplined us and we respected them. Shall we not much more be subject to the Father of spirits and live? 10 For they disciplined us for a short time as it seemed best to them, but he disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness. 11 For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.” Hebrews 12:7-11
In Hebrews we learn that only those who are loved by their parents receive discipline. God’s children have the privilege of His daily care and correction which is purposed for their enjoyment of eternal life. Believers daily experience the “discipline” of God. So it is that parents play a similar role in the lives of their children by daily training and correcting them. This is a privilege the unsaved and unloved do not enjoy; as a result they become set in their ways of selfishness. In the same way that God disciplines the believing Christian, Christian parents are to daily discipline and train their own children. We are not “punishing” them for their wrong doings, we administer correction and appropriate consequences to build their character and deepen their capacity to obey God. God is not a father to the unbelieving and unrepentant sinner, He does not discipline unbelievers. Unless they heed his Gospel and repent of their sin they are left to their own way with the certainty that they will one day face Him for judgment and pronouncement of final sentence for their rejection of His gracious free offer of salvation.
God Teaches His His Children with Parental Discipline
How does God discipline His children? He does it by teaching and instructing. When we are conscious of Him he guides us in subtle ways: “I will instruct you and teach you in the way you should go; I will guide you with my eye.” Psalm 32:8 Do you remember a time when you were growing up and found yourself with your parents in some unfamiliar social situation? Perhaps you were invited by the hosts to join them in some activity but were uncertain as to what you should do? In unfamiliar situations well disciplined children look to their parents for guidance. A perceptive child learns to receive guidance through their parent’s eyes. When there is a deep bond between parent and child, approval or disapproval can clearly be telegraphed by a meeting of the eyes, even if it is just a quick glance across the room. A disciplined child may be tempted to reach out and touch some attractive item, but if a glance towards a parent reveals disapproval, they know to draw back their hand immediately. God’s objective for His discipline is to create a close bond and relationship where we can be guided into the right choices by simply fixing our attention towards God. He desires to reveal his thoughts and intents to us through His Word to guide and inform our conduct in any unfamiliar situation.
God Uses Parental Discipline to Reveal Himself to Young Children
Young children know nothing about the nature and character of God at birth. God has given primary responsibility to parents for properly raising their own children. It is the parents’ solemn responsibility to introduce their children to the character and attributes of God by accurately modeling them before the children. Parents must show all of the attributes of God by their conduct and behavior. This includes His great love for sinners as well as His impartial justice. As God’s appointed authority figures for our children, how we react to our children’s behavior can portray either an accurate or a warped view of God’s character and attributes. Parents can inadvertently train their children to have a warped image of God by responding improperly or inconsistently to their children’s behavior. Here are a few examples of how children form their view of God’s character through their parents behavior. It can be either positive or negative, based on whether the parents faithfully model God’s truth by their conduct:
- God always keeps his promises. Parents who consistently do what they say they help their children to understand the reliability and faithfulness of God. What He declares He will do in His Word, He accomplishes. His Word is firm, immovable, and reliable. For this reason it’s important for parents to keep their promises to their children and never promise what they can’t or won’t keep. Honoring your spoken commitments will encourage your child to grow in faith and trust. Children who know they can trust their parents more readily learn to trust in the faithfulness of God. We are made in the image of God. To a child, parents are their first and longest lasting impression of the nature and character of God.
- God holds us accountable for the truth revealed in His Word. When parents are conscientious to hold their children accountable for immediate obedience at the first command they teach their children the importance of having an attentive heart to the authorities in their lives. When children learn the teachings of the Bible and are brought into personal relationship with God they will revere and respect God’s commands in Scripture because they have learned that no parental command will go unenforced. Consequently, they will readily believe that God will enforce the truths of the Bible.
- God is loving and kind. Parents who are under the discipline of the Holy Spirit will display patience and understanding towards a child’s weakness and inexperience and will not speak to the child in anger or frustration. The child will understand that parents are always looking out for their best interests and will be encouraged through their habitual display of kindness and love. A child who is accustomed to caring parents will naturally assume that God also cares.
- God is a just God who will always do what is right. Parents who model God’s justice to their children help them to understand that God’s righteousness demands that he uphold his standards of justice without partiality or favor. A holy God must hold sinners to account for their behavior. Parents who enforce consistent expectations for their children’s conduct and behavior by rewarding obedience and providing appropriate consequences for disobedience teach their children about God’s righteousness and provide the necessary foundation for them to understand God remedy for their sin through the shed blood of Christ on the cross. Children will understand that God displays both righteousness and mercy towards sinners.
- God is changeable and unpredictable. Children may believe that God is capricious and subject to unpredictable whims of behavior if their parents are inconsistent in how they discipline. Parents who act leniently in some situations and are strict in others are perceived as capricious and unpredictable. If parents are inconsistent their children will believe that God is changeable. Inconsistency frustrates children and leads to resentment.
- God does not really mean what he says in His Word and if you act like you didn’t hear, you can safely ignore Him. Undisciplined parents who overlook delayed obedience train their children to be careless and inattentive. By repeating themselves multiple times, parents train their children to ignore the first, second, or third commands. Children, once able to clearly understand, should be given only one command followed by immediate consequences appropriate to their response.
- God can be provoked and become angry and cruel without warning. Undisciplined parents are themselves frustrated and often will lose their patience and act in anger and frustration. This can lead their children to conclude that it is better to keep a safe distance from God because he might become suddenly angry like the parents who blow up in anger at their children’s misbehavior.
- God will overlook sin and doesn’t care if we are obedient or not. Parents who are inconsistent and overlook sin and disobedience in their children train their children to believe that God doesn’t care about sin. When parents don’t enforce standards for godly conduct children conclude that obedience isn’t important. If parents turn a blind eye to their children’s disobedience the child will assume that God will as well. A child that believes God can just overlook sin because their parents do it all the time may never feel the need to receive God’s provision for salvation in Christ.
God Does Not Punish, but Disciplines His Children by Chastening
We are blessed to experience God’s discipline in our lives. We see that God is not watching over us waiting to make a mistake and punish us. He is engaged in teaching and training us to help us grow an mature in our faith. God brings to bear many experiences to help us mature and grow. These are proof of his love. A child left to themselves is a neglected child, God’s daily discipline in our lives is proof of his love and commitment to our future. Chastening is not the same as punishment because is designed to make a person for his wrongdoing. Chastening is intended to someone become a better person by correcting him. Punishment does not involve love, where chastening does. A father demonstrates his love for his son by chastening him. The Bible says,
“He who spares his rod hates his son, but he who loves him chastens him promptly.” Proverbs 13:24
“For whom the Lord loves He chastens, and scourges every son whom He receives.” Hebrews 12:6
“Blessed is the man whom you discipline, O LORD, the man you teach from your law.” Psalm 94:12
How should we receive God’s Chastening?
Our response to God’s discipline should be to receive it with gratitude and not to be discouraged. The Bible says,
“My son, do not despise the chastening of the LORD, nor faint when you are rebuked by Him.” Hebrews 12:5
When we frame God’s daily discipline in the understanding that He is building our character we will not become disheartened at his efforts to improve and mature us. When Asaph framed his view of the prosperity of the wicked against eternity he was no longer discouraged at his daily trials and challenges under God’s daily discipline. If we are unloved, we are left to our own, but God displays His love for us in ordering our circumstances so we are constantly learning and growing. God’s chastening is proof of His love and we should be encouraged that He is engaged in growing and maturing us for His eternal kingdom.