This is one of the most important questions we’ve gotten in the Ask Pastor John inbox, and it comes to us from a listener named Jesse. “Dear Pastor John, in a recent episode (#948) you note that: ‘God sent his Son into the world to suffer with us and for us. This means that, if we trust him, none of our suffering is punishment for sin. Christ bore all of our punishment for sin.’ But there are very real consequences for our sin in this world, both on ourselves and on others, both for believers and unbelievers alike. For example, financial hardships following selfish overspending, or sexually transmitted disease following promiscuity. How do we see this as discipline and not punishment? And what really is the difference between the two?”
The difference between God’s discipline of his children and God’s judgment on his enemies is an infinite difference. So, I hope I can help Jesse feel the difference, because it is so important for his or her own walk of faith.
So, let me begin by defining the difference with a cup full of biblical passages — just two. And they are massively important. When I speak of God’s judgment upon his enemies, I am referring to the misery that he brings upon them, not for any purifying or restoring or rehabilitating purposes, but solely to express his holy justice, his retribution, not restitution. And it is purely on the basis precisely of what the enemies deserve. It is not to demonstrate mercy. It is to demonstrate righteousness and justice. For example, Revelation 16:5–6, “I heard the angel in charge of the waters say, ‘Just are you, O Holy One, who is and who was, for you brought these judgments. For they have shed the blood of saints and prophets, and you have given them blood to drink. It is what they deserve!’” So, there is the mark of pure retributive justice. It comes upon the sinner solely because of what they deserve, not because of any good that the punishment will do them.
You can see it even more clearly in Revelation 19:1–3, because here the judgments are eternal, not temporary. So, clearly they are not helping at all for a person to become holy. They are punishing him for not being holy. Here is what it says: “After this I heard what seemed to be the loud voice of a great multitude in heaven, crying out, ‘Hallelujah! Salvation and glory and power belong to our God, for his judgments are true and just; for he has judged the great prostitute who corrupted the earth with her immorality, and has avenged on her the blood of his servants.’ Once more they cried out, ‘Hallelujah! The smoke from her goes up forever and ever.’”
So, this is what I am talking about when I speak of God’s punishment upon sin in contrast to the discipline of God’s children. It is what the guilty deserve. It is holy and just retribution, and it is eternal. Therefore, is not designed for rehabilitation. It displays God’s justice, and it highlights how valuable mercy is to those who receive it.
On the other hand, God describes his discipline for his children very differently and extensively in Hebrews 12:5–11. Listen how different this is: “And have you forgotten the exhortation that addresses you as sons? ‘My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord, nor be weary when reproved by him” (Hebrews 12:5). Notice, this is discipline, not retribution. This is happening to God’s son, whom he loves and means to improve, even though it involves God’s displeasure. You can see that in the word reprove. And it goes on:
“For the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives.” 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? If you are left without discipline, in which all have participated, then you are illegitimate children and not sons. 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? 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. (Hebrews 12:6–10).
There is the great difference: “for our good, that we may share his holiness.” That is different from punishment on God’s enemies. “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 12:11).
So, I say again: There is an infinite difference between the painful things that come into our lives and discipline us — designed for our good that we may share God’s holiness as loved children — and that terrible experience of pure retribution where we simply bear what we deserve and experience God’s justice forever. It is called hell. And, of course, Jesse — and this may be the stumbling block — Jesse is absolutely right that many of the painful things in the Christian’s life are owing to our own sins: some that we committed before we were Christians, and some that we have committed since we have been Christians.
When Jesse asks, “How do we see this as discipline and not punishment?” it sounds like he may be making the mistake of thinking that God’s disciplinary action can only be the result of our righteous behavior through persecution, maybe, and God’s punishment comes only as a result of unrighteous behavior. Now, that is not the case. God’s discipline may indeed come from our own sinful behaviors and their consequences as Christians. And you can see this in 1 Corinthians 11:30 and following. Some Christians had sinned. They had really sinned in the way they had treated the Lord’s Supper. And here is God’s response: “That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died,” — died for their abuse of the Lord’s Table, their sin. Christians sin. They died for it.
He goes on, “But if we judged ourselves truly, we would not be judged. But when we are judged by the Lord” — meaning: ill, weak, death — when we are judged by the Lord — “we are disciplined so that we may not be condemned along with the world” (1 Corinthians 11:31–32). Amazing. This is a stunning example of God’s disciplinary judgment that goes so far as to bring about the death of his child. And that death is the disciplinary effect of sin in the child’s life because it keeps him from going to hell. It says, “that we may not be condemned along with the world.” That is why he took us out. Amazing.
So, Jesse, there is an infinite and precious difference between God’s retributive justice in punishment and God’s purifying discipline in our pain. And that difference does not lie in the origin, the human origin of the pain — whether good or evil. It lies in the purpose and the design of God in our suffering.