Discipline: Does God punish Christians for their sins?
What are we to think of passages of Scripture like this?
6 For whom the Lord loveth he chasteneth, and scourgeth every son whom he receiveth.
7 If ye endure chastening, God dealeth with you as with sons; for what son is he whom the father chasteneth not? [Emphasis added]
Looks pretty simple, doesn’t it? When reading a passage like this many people have supposed that God surely does punish His people for their sinfulness. But as a discerning believer, what’s the first thing you should notice about this passage? To whom is it addressed? Could it be that Hebrews is addressed TO the Hebrews? Are you a Hebrew? Are you a member of the House of Israel? Probably not! And even if you are Jewish in your lineage, you are now living in what is called the Dispensation of the Grace of God. God’s program for His people today is not the same as what it once was.
1 For this cause I Paul, the prisoner of Jesus Christ for you Gentiles,
2 If ye have heard of the dispensation of the grace of God which is given me to you-ward:
3 How that by revelation he made known unto me the mystery; (as I wrote afore in few words, [Emphasis added]
In this timeframe, God is now dealing with BOTH Jews and Gentiles in the same manner. God’s blessing is equally available to both. Neither one has a position of privilege over the other, as Israel once had over the Gentiles. As believers in Christ, we are equal in our standing before God.
11 Wherefore remember, that ye being in time past Gentiles in the flesh, who are called Uncircumcision by that which is called the Circumcision in the flesh made by hands;
12 That at that time ye were without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers from the covenants of promise, having no hope, and without God in the world:
13 But now in Christ Jesus ye who sometimes were far off are made nigh by the blood of Christ. [Emphasis added]
Because of all these changes, we need to look first to the writings of the apostle Paul for a correct answer to our question, for unlike Peter and the prophets, the apostle Paul is the apostle to the Gentiles. This means it is the apostle Paul, not Peter or any of the others, who is OUR apostle. In this timeframe in which we live, it is the apostle Paul who provides God’s instructions for all. And though there are many things in the whole Bible that do not conflict with Paul’s teaching, there are many things that do. When there’s a conflict between the two, we are to go with what Paul tells us. That’s a simple but very important concept that will make a huge difference in your understanding of the Bible and God’s will for your life.
In my early days as a believer, I, too, was one who ran all these things together, assuming that if it was in the Bible, it was addressed to me. But after some time of study, it came to my attention that such is simply not the case. While the whole Bible is FOR us, it is not all TO us or ABOUT us today. There are many commands, promises and prohibitions in the Bible that are not to any of us in our time. Here are some examples.
–Do you eat chicken? It was forbidden to Israel [Leviticus 11 & Deuteronomy 14].
–Do you eat pork? It, too, was forbidden to Israel [Leviticus 11:7].
–Do you rest and worship on each Sabbatical day and year? It was commanded of the people of Israel [Leviticus 25:1-55].
–Have you sold your possessions and distributed the proceeds to anyone who may have need? Our Lord issued a command for this, and, at that time, all his followers rightly obeyed [Luke 12:33 cf. Acts 2:44-45; 4:34-35].
–Believers of Israel are to eagerly anticipate Christ’s second coming [2 Peter 3:13], but we are to anticipate the Rapture where we will suddenly be taken up to meet Him in the air [1 Thessalonians 4:16-18].
Commands regarding these things are to be viewed from a dispensational perspective. Things not directed to us are to be sorted out from those things that are. Things not directed TO us are said to be for our learning, but not our obedience and application.
4 For whatsoever things were written aforetime were written for our learning, that we through patience and comfort of the scriptures might have hope. [Emphasis added]
The key to understanding all this comes by learning and applying the principle of rightly dividing the truths of Scripture.
II Timothy 2:15
15 Study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth. [Emphasis added]
It is because of the lack of understanding of these things that we have such a wide variety of beliefs among Christians. This is manifested by the existence of so many church denominations. Regarding “divine discipline,” many times, it is supposed that this is the cause for much of the suffering that goes on in the lives of Christians. Many have been taught to believe that their sinfulness has caused God to punish them, bringing various form of suffering into their lives. It is the belief that such things as unconfessed sin, having performed various sins, or refusing to obey certain commands have brought on their suffering. This includes everything from financial hardships, illnesses, accidents, ailing children, miscarriages and a host of other things. People who think such will quote multiple Bible verses to substantiate their belief. In every case, they should consider the context of those passages. They even misunderstand some written by the apostle Paul. Let’s look at one example of that.
I Corinthians 11:29-32
29 For he that eateth and drinketh unworthily, eateth and drinketh damnation to himself, not discerning the Lord’s body.
30 For this cause many are weak and sickly among you, and many sleep.
31 For if we would judge ourselves, we should not be judged.
32 But when we are judged, we are chastened of the Lord, that we should not be condemned with the world. [Emphasis added]
Partaking of the bread and the cup serves as a continual reminder of the wonderful sacrifice Christ made for us on the cross. The apostle Paul tells us we are told to do this “till He come” [1 Corinthians 11:26].” He also tells us we’re to engage in this ceremony “as oft” [1 Corinthians 11:25] as we choose, not telling us exactly how often. This serves as one of many illustrations of the gracious nature of our present dispensation.
A second solution Paul offers to the Corinthian misuse of this ritual is his admonition for them to examine themselves.
I Corinthians 11:28
28 But let a man examine himself, and so let him eat of that bread, and drink of that cup. [Emphasis added]
The consequences of failing to do so were being experienced by many. Note again verses 30-32. Exactly how is it that we are to judge [or examine] ourselves. What’s very important for us to understand about this is that the word [PAIDEUO] translated “chastened” in verse 32 is also found elsewhere and is best translated with the word instruction.
II Timothy 3:16
16 All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction [PAIDEUO] in righteousness: [Emphasis added]
What this is telling us is that this “chastening” is done through the “instruction” of God’s Word, not some form of punishment. It is through our understanding of God’s Word that we may “examine” ourselves, not by the standards of others, but by the standards of God’s Word. It is in this manner that we are “chastened” of the Lord, and not by various “tragedies” in one’s life. It is the “chastening” of God’s Word that is to correct us in our thoughts and actions. For the nation Israel in a former time, it was quite different. God’s Word specifically states various things the people of Israel could expect to suffer for their violations of God’s Word. All Leviticus 26 is devoted to this, but here are a few sample verses of that chapter.
23 And if ye will not be reformed by me by these things, but will walk contrary unto me;
24 Then will I also walk contrary unto you, and will punish you yet seven times for your sins.
25 And I will bring a sword upon you, that shall avenge the quarrel of my covenant: and when ye are gathered together within your cities, I will send the pestilence among you; and ye shall be delivered into the hand of the enemy.
26 And when I have broken the staff of your bread, ten women shall bake your bread in one oven, and they shall deliver you your bread again by weight: and ye shall eat, and not be satisfied.
27 And if ye will not for all this hearken unto me, but walk contrary unto me;
28 Then I will walk contrary unto you also in fury; and I, even I, will chastise you seven times for your sins. [Emphasis added]
There are numerous other illustrations of this in Scripture that pertain to Israel’s covenant relationship with our Lord. But we must understand that we are not Israel, and we live in a different time and under different policies. We are in this which is called The Dispensation of Grace. A part of that dispensing of grace is to do with the manner in which God addresses His people today. We are said to be members of His body, the Body of Christ. We need to learn about and appreciate what this means for us. While sins have always had consequences, it is now only in that manner that He deals with us in our foolishness. For instance, America is not Israel. The things God promised Israel both in blessing and cursing do not apply to our nation today or to any other. We are in a different time and living under a different program. Regarding consequences for sin, we have passages of warning such as Galatians 6. In the context, Paul is talking about giving and sharing one’s resources with those who provide them with the teaching of God’s Word, but the principle given there applies to all of life.
6 Let him that is taught in the word communicate unto him that teacheth in all good things.
7 Be not deceived; God is not mocked: for whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap.
8 For he that soweth to his flesh shall of the flesh reap corruption; but he that soweth to the Spirit shall of the Spirit reap life everlasting.
Verse eight is telling us that by sharing with those who minister in the Word and the gospel message, everlasting blessings are gained through the salvation of others, not just temporal ones.
9 And let us not be weary in well doing: for in due season we shall reap, if we faint not.
10 As we have therefore opportunity, let us do good unto all men, especially unto them who are of the household of faith. [Emphasis added]
Yes, decisions have consequences—both good and bad. It seems we all need regular reminders of that. This is a primary reason why we should all be fully engaged in the learning of God’s wisdom through the teaching of the Bible. From Genesis to Revelation, you’ll find principles of wisdom that can be extremely helpful, especially in how to avoid various forms of suffering.
In the case of the Corinthian church, such lessons can be learned from their bad example. Certain ones there were getting drunk and being gluttonous when observing the Lord’s Supper [I Corinthians 11:21-22]. Overeating and drunkenness are known to cause illness and even death. However, please understand that God was not punishing the Corinthians for their bad behavior; the Corinthians simply reaped the results of their sowing to the flesh instead of sowing to the Spirit. There’s nothing to indicate that God was causing the Corinthians to get sick and/or to die; He simply let them reap the consequences of their foolish actions. The Corinthians preferred drunkenness and gluttony, so God let them exercise free will to pursue it. Although Jesus Christ has taken away the eternal penalty for our sins, please understand that God will not remove the consequences of our poor judgment. If we choose a lifestyle of excessive eating, including the consumption of alcohol and drugs, God will not shield us from the ill effects and poor health such a lifestyle brings. The Corinthians were experiencing the natural results of their behavior. It was not God directing sickness and death to “discipline” them with various forms of suffering.
This is another benefit of understanding the right division of Scripture [II Timothy 2:15]. This is the key to understanding how God deals with us in our time. Today, God does not bless us on the basis of our works, our performance; moreover, God does not curse on the basis of our works, our performance. This is made abundantly clear in Paul’s epistle to the Romans and, as we have seen, in his epistle to the Galatians.
14 For sin shall not have dominion over you: for ye are not under the law [speaking of its blessings and curses], but under grace.
15 What then? shall we sin, because we are not under the law, but under grace? God forbid. [Emphasis added]
In our time, we are said to be blessed with every spiritual blessing because of Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection in our behalf. We are not blessed because of our performance of good works—praying, giving, evangelizing, living a moral life, or whatever. As we noted at the beginning of this article, those who believe our works have something to do with God’s blessing and cursing of us will quote this passage directed to the Hebrews. But this time, let’s also look at the rest of it, not just verse six. And, again, let’s also realize that this is addressed to the Hebrews, to Israel, not us today as members of the Body of Christ.
5 And ye have forgotten the exhortation which speaketh unto you as unto children, My son, despise not thou the chastening [instruction] of the Lord, nor faint when thou art rebuked of him:
6 For whom the Lord loveth he chasteneth [instructs], and scourgeth [whips, speaking of the infliction of physical pain] every son whom he receiveth.
7 If ye endure chastening [instruction], God dealeth with you as with sons; for what son is he whom the father chasteneth [instructs] not?
8 But if ye be without chastisement [instruction], whereof all are partakers, then are ye bastards, and not sons.
9 Furthermore we have had fathers of our flesh which corrected us, and we gave them reverence [or respect]: shall we not much rather be in subjection unto the Father of spirits, and live?
10 For they verily for a few days chastened [instructed] us after their own pleasure; but he for our profit, that we might be partakers of his holiness.
11 Now no chastening [instruction, as in rebuke] for the present seemeth to be joyous, but grievous: nevertheless afterward it yieldeth the peaceable fruit of righteousness unto them which are exercised thereby. [Emphasis added]
One of the reasons this passage is often quoted is that people falsely assume it was written by the apostle Paul, making it applicable to us today. While beyond the scope of this study, there is plenty of Scriptural evidence to indicate that Paul did not write the book of Hebrews. Furthermore, Hebrews 12:5-11 has a context—it quotes Proverbs 3:11-12 [a passage TO and ABOUT Israel], and from the book’s title, it is overwhelmingly clear that Hebrews is still a Jewish book with a Jewish title. The book of Hebrews is not actually written TO us or ABOUT us, the Church, the Body of Christ, so we should not try to extract its teachings and force them on ourselves. Here are some very important things to note about the book of Hebrews.
–It is written to believing Israel, the Hebrews living during the coming seven-year Tribulation, facing the final judgments of her many years of rejecting God’s Savior, Jesus Christ.
–It speaks of “the world to come” [Hebrews 2:5], the Millennial Kingdom promised to Israel, not Heaven which is promised to us.
–It is written to people who are anticipating Jesus Christ’s Second Coming [Hebrews 10:25], not the Rapture which is something we look forward to coming.
–It is to prepare God’s people Israel for the blessings of Christ’s coming kingdom where His will is done on Earth as it is in Heaven.
Therefore, the book of Hebrews has nothing whatsoever to do with God punishing unruly believers in this present Dispensation of the Grace of God.
Satan has done a successful work of confusing all unbelievers and most believers. His work has been to mix God’s covenant to Israel with God’s program of grace. His teaching, being Scriptural but not dispensational, goes undetected by most people. If Israel wanted to be blessed of God, she had to do the good works of the Law by faith [James 2:14-26]. When Israel failed to comply, she could expect all the curses, the judgments, and the chastisements of Deuteronomy 28 and Leviticus 26.
Back in the days of Exodus 19, Israel responded to God’s offer of a covenant.
5 Now therefore, if ye [Israel] will obey my voice indeed, and keep my covenant, then ye shall be a peculiar treasure unto me above all people: for all the earth is mine:
6 And ye shall be unto me a kingdom of priests, and an holy nation. These are the words which thou shalt speak unto the children of Israel.
7 And Moses came and called for the elders of the people, and laid before their faces all these words which the Lord commanded him.
8 And all the people answered together, and said, All that the Lord hath spoken we will do. And Moses returned the words of the people unto the Lord. [Emphasis added]
Israel remained under this covenant of law right through the days of our Lord’s earthly ministry and for a time thereafter.
4 But when the fulness of the time was come, God sent forth his Son, made of a woman, made under the law, [Emphasis added]
Israel became a party to a covenant with God where IF they obeyed Him, they would be His people and the recipients of His blessing [Exodus 19:5]. IF they didn’t obey Him, they would be cursed, having to bear all the suffering this would bring upon them. All that God did was His attempt to reform her [Leviticus 26:23] and get her to live obediently to Him. The attempt was to get her to do what was right, much as a parent would lovingly discipline a disobedient child.
1 And it shall come to pass, if thou shalt hearken diligently unto the voice of the Lord thy God, to observe and to do all his commandments which I command thee this day, that the Lord thy God will set thee on high above all nations of the earth:
2 And all these blessings shall come on thee, and overtake thee, if thou shalt hearken unto the voice of the Lord thy God. [Emphasis added]
But then later in this passage He gives them warning about the consequences of disobedience.
15 But it shall come to pass, if thou wilt not hearken unto the voice of the Lord thy God, to observe to do all his commandments and his statutes which I command thee this day; that all these curses shall come upon thee, and overtake thee: [Emphasis added]
This is then followed by a list of curses that would come upon Israel. Unfortunately, much of the Old Testament writings are about Israel’s failure to be obedient. We also have there a record of the consequences God put on Israel for her disobedience.
The Law served then and serves now to show that man can never measure up to God’s perfect standards.
19 Now we know that what things soever the law saith, it saith to them who are under the law: that every mouth may be stopped, and all the world may become guilty before God.
20 Therefore by the deeds of the law there shall no flesh be justified in his sight: for by the law is the knowledge of sin. [Emphasis added]
This is why God offers to us His grace—what we do not deserve. Again, we are totally incapable of living up to His standards. So, God offers us salvation and all the blessings that come with it by His grace alone. If we make any attempt to save ourselves by our own works, grace is distorted, and salvation is not provided.
6 And if by grace, then is it no more of works: otherwise grace is no more grace. But if it be of works, then it is no more grace: otherwise work is no more work.
To say we are saved by grace but that we must do good to avoid God’s punishment is to mix law and grace. God has provided the whole book of Galatians to refute that combination. You nullify God’s grace when you mix it with some system of law-keeping. It is imperative that you be impressed with what God has provided for you to have salvation, not what you can produce through some system of works.
Leaven is used in the Bible to illustrate this principle. Just as a little leaven will leaven a whole lump of dough, so a little amount of works, destroys grace. You must always realize that salvation is by grace alone. Anything you add to it makes it no longer something of grace. Scripture puts it this way.
8 For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God:
9 Not of works, lest any man should boast.
Man’s works for salvation are totally unacceptable.
4 Now to him that worketh is the reward not reckoned of grace, but of debt.
5 But to him that worketh not, but believeth on him that justifieth the ungodly, his faith is counted for righteousness. [Emphasis added]
The attempt to mix law and grace for salvation is common. Anytime someone attempts to measure up to God’s standard of perfection for salvation they always fall short. They never measure up. Only when they rely totally on His provision will salvation and peace of mind be gained. I do not question the sincerity of people who try to measure up to God’s standards of perfection for salvation, but I do question their theology.
If God is punishing Christians for their bad behavior, that means that He is imputing their sins to them, and that means that Jesus Christ did not take care of their sin problem. If God has to punish us for our sins, what is the purpose of having Jesus Christ as our Redeemer and Savior? Does the Bible not say that God is not imputing our trespasses unto us?
II Corinthians 5:19
19 To wit, that God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto himself, not imputing their trespasses unto them; and hath committed unto us the word of reconciliation. [Emphasis added]
Doesn’t the Bible tell us we’ve been forgiven of all our sins—past, present, and future.
Ephesians 1:7 [Also Colossians 2:13]
7 In whom we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, according to the riches of his grace; [Emphasis added]
We are a blessed people because of this.
8 Blessed is the man to whom the Lord will not impute sin [Emphasis added].
God is not holding our sins against us. Divine punishment for sins simply has no place in this present Dispensation of Grace. If God were punishing Christians for sins, every Christian would stay sick, stay poor, and stay cursed. Everyone sins, even preachers.
Here, again, I do not question the sincerity of the people teaching that God punishes people for their sinfulness. I once believed that myself, along with most Christians. But now I realize that was legalism that has no place in the present Dispensation of the Grace of God. People who think otherwise have not learned what grace is all about. They need to learn the difference between being under the Mosaic Law and being under God’s grace policy of our time. As with any form of false doctrine, it is easy to become a part of it. Such has always been the case.
3 Are ye so foolish? having begun in the Spirit, are ye now made perfect by the flesh? [Emphasis added]
To believe that God manipulates our circumstances to punish us for our sins is to ignore the authority of Scripture. God does not “speak” to us through our circumstances. He doesn’t bring problems our way to teach us anything. All the teaching comes through what He’s given us in His completed Word.
II Timothy 3:16-17
16 All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine [teaching], for reproof [to reform our bad behavior], for correction, for instruction in righteousness:
17 That the man of God may be perfect [matured], thoroughly furnished [completely equipped] unto all good works. [Emphasis added]
Therefore, you can relax about the idea that God is going to punish you for your sins. There will be consequences for your foolish decisions, but not God’s hand in punishment. Instead of being concerned about punishment from God, maintain a thankful spirit for the complete forgiveness He has provided, seeking to express that thanksgiving by a life obedience to His word as it is given to us, particularly through the writings of the apostle Paul.