The Difference Between Punishment and Discipline

Just as God marvelously designed the human body to heal a broken bone, so He has equipped the body of Christ with all that is necessary for every member to be involved in the process of restoring broken parts damaged by sin. As with the human body’s reaction to broken bone, restoration of sinning brethren should be the “normal healing cycle.” The goal of restoration to the Lord, which includes reconciliation with the family of God, is consistently taught by other Scriptures:

  • “Therefore if you are presenting your offering at the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your offering there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother, and then come and present your offering” (Matt. 5:23–24).
  • “If your brother sins, go and show him his fault in private; if he listens to you, you have won your brother. But if he does not listen to you, take one or two more with you, so that by the mouth of two or three witnesses every fact may be confirmed. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector” (Matt. 18:15–17).
  • “My brethren, if any among you strays from the truth and one turns him back, let him know that he who turns a sinner from the error of his way will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins” (James 5:19–20).
  • “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? But if you are without discipline, of which all have become partakers, then you are illegitimate children and not sons. Furthermore, 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. All discipline for the moment seems not to be joyful, but sorrowful; yet to those who have been trained by it, afterwards it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness” (Heb. 12:7–11).

In all of these passages, the goal is the same. It is always restorative and never punitive. In particular, we conclude from the passage in Hebrews that God does not punish His children—He disciplines them. There is an enormous difference between punishment and discipline.

Punishment casts away, while discipline restores. Punishment is for subjects of wrath, while discipline is for children of God. Punishment requires payment for sin, while discipline corrects to protect and bless, because sin has already been paid for by Jesus. Punishment focuses on past sins, whereas discipline, while still dealing with sin, looks to the future blessing of obedience that follows true repentance. This is why punishment often provokes believers to wrath while biblical discipline works to produce sorrow leading to repentance.

Understanding the difference between judicial punishment and parental discipline is crucial to being effective in the discipleship process. God is our example. He never punishes His children. He does not give us tally marks for misconduct. Instead, He does the harder work of coming alongside offenders, confronting them in love, leading them to repentance and biblical confession, and restoring them to fellowship so that they may continue to be sanctified. The main reason why a punitive approach to sanctification does not work is because it fails to adequately address the issue of the heart—where true change begins. Most seriously, it risks undermining one’s comprehension of and confidence in the atonement of Christ, who took all our punishment on the cross. This is more than semantics! How discipline is handled in the discipleship process either affirms the theology of the cross or subtly replaces it with a performance-based approach to godliness that may feed a fear of man as the motivation for holiness rather than the infinitely superior drive of love for Christ: “and He died for all, that they who live should no longer live for themselves, but for Him who died and rose again on their behalf” (2 Cor. 5:15).

[Excerpted from Counseling One Another: A Theology of Inter-Personal Discipleship]

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