Divine Discipline for the Christian

As Christians living in the dispensation of the church age, we are not under the Mosaic Law as the rule for life (Rom 6:14; Heb 8:13), but are under the Law of Christ (1 Cor 9:21; Gal 6:2). Israelites, living under the Mosaic Law were promised physical blessings if they obeyed the Lord’s directives (Deut 28:1-14), and physical curses if they disobeyed (Deut 28:15-68). For Christians, our blessings from the Lord can be physical (1 Tim 6:17-19), but are primarily spiritual in nature (Eph 1:3). And we are not said to be cursed when we disobey, but we do come under God’s discipline (Heb 12:5-11), and this because ongoing sin impairs our walk with Him and stunts our spiritual growth.

As God’s children, He has equipped us with the knowledge and power to live righteously (2 Tim 3:16-17; Tit 2:11-14; 2 Pet 1:2-3). Daily sin is handled by means of confession directly to the Lord, who always forgives (1 John 1:9). However, unconfessed sin and failure to advance spiritually can bring God’s discipline. He loves us enough not to leave us where we are, and desires that we advance to spiritual maturity (Heb 6:1; cf., 1 Cor 14:20; Eph 4:11-13). This means we learn to deal with our sin based on His resources (so that we sin less), and pursue the Christian virtues He desires to see in us.

Hebrews 12:4-11 is a key passage related to God’s discipline in the life of a Christian. In the letter, the writer states, “You have not yet resisted to the point of shedding blood in your striving against sin” (Heb 12:4). According to Zane Hodges, “By ‘sin’ the author probably primarily meant that of ‘sinful men’ who opposed them, but doubtless also had their own sin in mind, which they had to resist in order to maintain a steadfast Christian profession.”[1] Biblically, we should personally strive against committing sin; however, the reality is that we do not. Some of us barely struggle at all. Where we break down in our personal efforts, God will work in and around us to help us grow. It is written, “You have forgotten the exhortation which is addressed to you as sons, ‘My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord, nor faint when you are reproved by Him; 6 for those whom the Lord loves He disciplines, and He scourges every son whom He receives’” (Heb 12:5-6).

Divine DisciplineIn these verses, the writer uses the Greek word for an adult son (υἱός huios) and not that of a newborn (βρέφος brephos) or young child (παιδίον paidion). According to Warren Wiersbe, “A parent who would repeatedly chasten an infant child would be considered a monster. God deals with us as adult sons because we have been adopted and given an adult standing in His family (see Rom 8:14–18; Gal 4:1–7). The fact that the Father chastens us is proof that we are maturing, and it is the means by which we can mature even more.”[2] The noun (παιδεία paideia) in Hebrews 12:5 refers to the process whereby adult children are groomed for holy living. It is “the act of providing guidance for responsible living, upbringing, training, instruction, [which] is attained by discipline, correction, of the holy discipline of a fatherly God.”[3] The verb (παιδεύω paideuo) in Hebrews 12:6 means “to provide instruction for informed and responsible living, educate…to assist in the development of a person’s ability to make appropriate choices, practice discipline”[4] Wiersbe states:

Chastening is the evidence of the Father’s love. Satan wants us to believe that the difficulties of life are proof that God does not love us, but just the opposite is true. Sometimes God’s chastening is seen in His rebukes from the Word or from circumstances. At other times He shows His love by punishing (“the Lord…scourgeth”) us with some physical suffering. Whatever the experience, we can be sure that His chastening hand is controlled by His loving heart. The Father does not want us to be pampered babies; He wants us to become mature adult sons and daughters who can be trusted with the responsibilities of life.[5]

As Christians, we must learn to expect God to discipline us, as He uses His Word and the hardships of life to mold our characters. God’s discipline is a sign of His love for us, and “It is for discipline that you endure; God deals with you as with sons; for what son is there whom his father does not discipline?” (Heb 12:7). MacDonald states, “when testings come to us, we should realize that God is treating us as sons. In any normal father-son relationship, the father trains his son because he loves him and wants the best for him. God loves us too much to let us develop naturally.”[6]

And God does not discipline the devil’s children, but He does discipline His own; for “if you are without discipline, of which all have become partakers, then you are illegitimate children and not sons” (Heb 12:8). There may be times when unbelievers get away with certain sins and even seem to enjoy the blessings of this life without hardship (Psa 73:1-12). But this is not so with God’s children, as He desires greater blessings for us, both in time and eternity. The wise gardener never spends her time pruning the neighbor’s weeds, but only her roses, and this because she desires greater beauty from them.

God’s loving discipline is consistent with that of a good father who loves his children and trains them in righteous living. For “we had earthly fathers to discipline us, and we respected them; shall we not much rather be subject to the Father of spirits, and live? For they disciplined us for a short time as seemed best to them, but He disciplines us for our good, so that we may share His holiness” (Heb 12:9-10). God’s desire is to refine us into the godly persons He wants us to be. By means of discipline, He seeks to burn away the dross of weak character and sinful habits and to refine those golden qualities He wants to see in us; the godly qualities that make us better. God always disciplines us for our good, that “we may share in His holiness” (Heb 12:10). According to John Jowett:

The purpose of God’s chastening is not punitive but creative. He chastens “that we may share His holiness.” The phrase “that we may share” has direction in it, and the direction points toward a purified and beautified life. The fire which is kindled is not a bonfire, blazing heedlessly and unguardedly, and consuming precious things; it is a refiner’s fire, and the Refiner sits by it, and He is firmly and patiently and gently bringing holiness out of carelessness and stability out of weakness. God is always creating even when He is using the darker means of grace. He is producing the fruits and flowers of the Spirit. His love is always in quest of lovely things.[7]

Divine ViewpointAs growing believers, we must learn to operate by divine viewpoint and live above the daily grind of life with all its difficulties and hardships. When we operate by divine viewpoint and live by faith, we can be thankful for God’s loving work in our lives which, over time, yields godly fruit in the lives of His humble and obedient children. It is by divine viewpoint that we realize, “All discipline for the moment seems not to be joyful, but sorrowful” (Heb 12:11a). It is the natural proclivity of a person to maximize joy and minimize sorrow, and the Christian is no exception. We must never think the absence of joy means the absence of God, for though we often praise Him in the heights, He is with us in the valleys (Psa 23:4), and it is there His work is most impactful. And when God’s discipline has taken its course, when we “have been trained by it, afterwards it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness” (Heb 12:11b). It’s always the afterwards that matters most to God, for when the Pruner has done His work in cutting away useless branches that bear no fruit, the benefit is a harvest of right living.

As God’s children, He expects us to live holy and righteous lives that conform to His will (Tit 2:11-14; 1 Pet 1:15-16). When we sin, we can be restored to fellowship with God by means of confession (1 John 1:9). If we fail to confess our sins, and choose a sinful lifestyle, we put ourselves in real danger of knowing God’s discipline. The wise believer accepts God’s correction. The psalmist wrote, “It is good for me that I was afflicted, that I may learn Your statutes” (Psa 119:71), and later said, “I know, O LORD, that Your judgments are righteous, and that in faithfulness You have afflicted me” (Psa 119:75).

Suffering is sometimes removed after the believer confesses his/her sin to God (1 John 1:9). However, sometimes God leaves the suffering, which means His corrective suffering becomes perfective suffering to help us grow spiritually. In corrective suffering, we are outside God’s will and are governed by our sin nature and human viewpoint, which cannot sustain the believer in times of trouble. But when we confess our sin to God (1 John 1:9), any residual suffering can be dealt with as we are filled with the Spirit (Eph 5:18), walking by means of the Spirit (Gal 5:16), and living by faith (Heb 10:38; 11:6).

The Sin Unto Death

There is a point when a believer can sin and there’s no recovery. When that happens, God will bring His child home. The apostle John wrote, “If anyone sees his [Christian] brother committing a sin that does not bring death, he should ask, and God will give life to him—to those who commit sin that doesn’t bring death. There is sin that brings death. I am not saying he should pray about that” (1 John 5:16 CSB). It happens from time to time that a Christian will see another Christian “committing a sin.” The apostle John distinguished two kinds of sin in the life of the Christian: the “sin that does not bring death” and the “sin that brings death” (1 John 5:16-17). The “sin that does not bring death” is any sin the Christian commits that does not warrant physical death from the hand of God, though it may bring divine discipline if the believer continues in it. John does not specify which sin leads to death and which sin does not, as the punishment is finally determined by the Lord.

SinIt was a terrible sin when Aaron led the Israelites into idol worship (Ex 32:1-6), but God did not call for Aaron’s death. Samson slept with prostitutes (Judg 16:1-4), and though he was disciplined, the Lord did not kill him. When David had an affair with Bathsheba and murdered her husband Uriah, it was a rotten sin that brought divine discipline. The Lord told David, “I will raise up evil against you from your own household” (2 Sam 12:11); however, the Lord also told David, “you shall not die” (2 Sam 12:13), but then disciplined him with the death of his son (2 Sam 12:14). Later, after David confessed his sin, he was restored to ministry (Psa 51:12-13). It was evil when Solomon worshipped idols (1 Ki 11:1-10), but even here the Lord did not pronounce death for Solomon’s sin. Peter argued with Jesus and tried to prevent Him from going to the cross (Matt 16:21-22), and later publicly denied the Lord three times (Matt 26:34-35; 69-75), but Peter was allowed to live. The apostle John twice worshiped an angel and was rebuked for it (Rev 19:10; 22:8-9), but the Lord let him live and used him in ministry. God’s grace and mercy is very prominent throughout the Bible, and He repeatedly gives us ample opportunity to confess our sin and turn back to him. We know from Scripture that “The LORD is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in lovingkindness” (Psa 103:8). Because of this, “He has not dealt with us according to our sins, nor rewarded us according to our iniquities” (Psa 103:10). Thank God for His great grace.

But there are sins a believer can commit that can result in physical death. The sin that leads to death, according to Paul Karleen, “denotes a sin habitually practiced by a believer, leading to God’s removing him from this life, but not taking away his salvation.”[8] It refers to the believer who has become so sinfully rebellious that God disciplines him to point of death and takes him home to heaven. There are references in the Bible where God personally issued the death penalty for one or more of His erring children who had defied His authority. Examples include: Nadab and Abihu, who disobeyed the Lord in their priestly service (Lev 10:1-3), Uzzah, when he touched the Ark (2 Sam 6:1-7), and Ananias and Sapphira who lied to the Holy Spirit (Acts 5:1-11). The Christians at Corinth experienced stages of discipline which included weakness, sickness, and eventual death (1 Cor 11:30). God’s discipline is never to condemn, which cannot happen (Rom 8:1), for “when we are judged, we are disciplined by the Lord so that we will not be condemned along with the world” (1 Cor 11:32).

Under the Mosaic Law, God willed that sin be punished, but only some sins were punishable by physical death.[9] Sometimes God Himself executed the punishment (Lev 10:1-3; 2 Sam 6:1-7), and other times it was carried out by Israel’s leaders (Ex 32:19-28). In the New Testament, God does not call Christians to put anyone to death, but has delegated that authority solely to the governments of this world (Rom 13:1-6), or He does it Himself (Acts 5:1-11; 1 Cor 11:30; 1 John 5:16). Personal sins that impact only the believer are differentiated from sins that harm others. Divine discipline is only related to our time on earth, as there will be no need for discipline in the eternal state (Rev 21:3-4).

Many Christians rightfully suffer because of their sinful lifestyle (1 Pet 4:15), and those who persist in their sin will eventually die by the hand of the Lord. Such a death is the pinnacle of suffering in this life, but we should never conclude that it means suffering for eternity. All believers are eternally secure in Christ. At the moment of salvation, all believers are given eternal life and imputed with God’s righteousness (John 3:16; 10:28; Rom 5:17; 2 Cor 5:21; Phil 3:9). They are forever kept by the power of God and cannot forfeit their salvation (John 10:29; Rom 8:38-39). This means that when believers die—whatever the cause—they are guaranteed heaven as their eternal home. At the resurrection, the Christian is guaranteed a new body just the like body of our Lord Jesus, which has no sin (Phil 3:20-21).


It is possible for a Christian to sin, and to sin as badly as any unbeliever. However, unlike the unbeliever, God disciplines His own (Heb 12:5-11), and, if necessary, disciplines to the point of death (1 Cor 11:30; 1 John 5:16). This need not be the case. The Christian is called to a life of holiness (1 Pet 1:15-16), and this means learning to walk with God and do His will. Though we still possess a sin nature, Christians know victory because of our union with Christ (Rom 6:6, 11-13), and our walk of faith (Heb 10:38; 11:6). When filled with the Spirit (Eph 5:18), and walking by means of the Spirit (Gal 5:16), we can learn to embrace trials and even rejoice in them (Rom 5:3-5; Jam 1:2-4).

Dr. Steven R. Cook

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[1] Zane C. Hodges, “Hebrews,” in The Bible Knowledge Commentary: An Exposition of the Scriptures, vol. 2 (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1985), 810.

[2] Warren W. Wiersbe, The Bible Exposition Commentary, vol. 2 (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1996), 324.

[3] William Arndt et al., A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 748.

[4] Ibid., 749.

[5] Warren W. Wiersbe, The Bible Exposition Commentary, vol. 2, 324.

[6] William MacDonald, Believer’s Bible Commentary: Old and New Testaments, ed. Arthur Farstad (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1995), 2203.

[7] John H. Jowett, Life in the Heights: Studies in the Epistles (New York, Bible House Publications, 1925), 260-261.

[8] Paul S. Karleen, The Handbook to Bible Study: With a Guide to the Scofield Study System (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987), 359.

[9] There were certain laws under the Old Testament that brought the death penalty: intentional murder (Ex 21:12-14; cf. Gen 9:6), attacking or cursing a parent (Ex 21:15), kidnapping (Ex 21:16), habitual rebellion against God (Deut 17:12), sacrificing to pagan gods (Ex 22:20), cursing God (Lev 24:15-16), working on the Sabbath (Ex 35:2), being a false prophet and leading Israelites into idolatry (Deut 13:1-5), religious human sacrifice (Lev 20:2), the practice of divination, sorcery or witchcraft (Ex 22:18; Deut 18:9-14), adultery and premarital sex (Lev 20:10-14; 21:9; Deut 22:20-22), sex with an animal (Ex 22:19; Lev 20:15-16), incest (Lev 20:11-12, 14), homosexuality (Lev 18:22; 20:13), and the rape of a married woman (Deut 22:25-27).