Have you ever heard a Christian say something like this?:
"When I put my faith in Jesus Christ, I became a child of God, a member of God's family. I will never be kicked out, even though I sin. In human families, children can run away, get in trouble, etc., yet they can never cease to be the children of their parents and members of their families. That is something that can never change! So it is with God's family: I can sin, but I can never cease to be God's child. Who I am - my identity as a child of God - can never change. I am saved and can never lose my salvation. Yet just as a human father will discipline his child, so my Father in heaven will lovingly discipline me when I sin, for my good; but I will never cease to be His child!"
This sounds good, doesn't it? Yet it is not correct.
Of course, it is true that when we put our faith in Jesus Christ we become the children of God and members of God's family (John 1:12, etc.). It is true that we cannot lose our identity as children of God, nor our membership in God's family, nor our salvation, through sinning (Romans 8:30, 1 John 5:4, etc.). Notice, however, that this common saying entirely neglects the central truth of the Gospel of Christ: the righteousness of God through faith.
The Gospel teaches us that when we put our faith in Jesus Christ we become the righteousness of God in Him (2 Cor. 5:21). Through faith in Christ we are justified (declared righteous) and have peace with God (Rom. 5:1). The blood of Christ shed on the cross presents us blameless before the Father (Col. 1:22), perfecting us forever (Heb. 10:14). We are washed from all of our sins, and no accusing tongue can ever lay a charge against us (Rev. 1:5, Rom. 8:33). Believing in Christ does not merely make us members of God's family, but it makes us righteous, which is the divine requirement for being in God's family.
The problem with the common saying above, then, is that it too simply compares our relationship to God with our relationship with our human families, as if there were no difference! It fails to take into account that our relationship with God, though similar indeed to our human family relationship, involves something entirely unique and different. It is this critical difference which makes the Gospel something transcendent and amazing, and not just like something else on this earth. This, as I have already said, is the righteousness which we possess through faith in Christ. A child in a human family can get in all sorts of trouble with his parents. He can be a menace. He can be a grief to his parents. Though he can never cease to be a member of the family, his siblings or friends can tattle-tale on him, and his parents will discipline him for his wrongdoings. They do not see him as perpetually blameless.
Consider the case of Dennis the Menace. Though Dennis ever remains the true child of his parents, yet he is constantly getting into trouble and not infrequently receiving spankings from his dad. Is this how our relationship with God works? Let's face it: we all sin. As Christians we behave, from the perspective of God's holy law, like little Dennis the Menaces. Is it truly the case that we are simply saved members of God's family but are not actually seen as righteous in the eyes of our Father? Does God look down upon His children with disapproval, seeing their sin and disciplining them on account of it? If our sins bring a frown to God's face, and we are always falling short, do we therefore believe that God is never smiling on us?
If the answer to these questions is "yes", then righteousness by faith has, in effect, no practical bearing. If our case with God is the same as the case of Dennis the Menace with his father, then we are not actually righteous in the sight of God, and the Biblical truth of righteousness through faith essentially just means that I receive a "get-out-of-jail-free card" because I can prove my dad is God; a card in my wallet that I can show the gatekeeper of heaven. He knows and I know that I am not really righteous, but because I can prove I'm in God's family I get my free pass. The righteousness I possess through faith in Christ is a "legal fiction", meaning it legally gets me into heaven, but as for me being actually seen as righteous by God... that is a fiction.
Sadly, many Christians think of their relationship with God like this. They think they are menaces in the eyes of God. They know they are saved, will not go to hell, and will never be kicked out of God's family (praise God for all this!), but they do not live their lives thinking they are actually righteous in the sight of God. They look up and wince every time they sin, believing that God is frowning upon them, ready to discipline them with His big wooden spoon. Righteousness through faith has no practical bearing. It means only a legal pass.
As shocking as the Biblical truth of righteousness through faith may sound, the Bible actually teaches that the righteousness which we possess through faith in Christ is no legal fiction. When we put our faith in Jesus Christ we become the children of God precisely because we are declared righteous in the judgment of God. God really does see His children as righteous, lawful, sinless, and perfect. He "has not beheld iniquity in Jacob, neither has He seen perverseness in Israel." (Num. 23:21) "As far as the east is from the west, so far has He removed our transgressions from us." (Ps. 103:12) "In those days and in that time, says the Lord, the iniquity of Israel shall be sought for, and there shall be none; and the sins of Jacob, they shall not be found: for I will pardon them." (Jer. 50:20) "No weapon that is formed against you shall prosper, and every tongue that rises against you in judgment you shall condemn. This is the heritage of the servants of the Lord, and their righteousness is of me, says the Lord." (Is. 54:17) "I will greatly rejoice in the Lord, my soul shall be joyful in my God, for He has clothed me with the garments of salvation, He has covered with the robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom decks himself with ornaments, and as a bride adorns herself with jewels." (Is. 61:10) What amazing things God speaks about His people!
The New Testament is filled with declarations of the blamelessness of God's children. In Romans, Paul quotes David as saying that God does not count sin against any man who is righteous through faith:
"Blessed is the man whose iniquities are forgiven and whose sin is covered: blessed is the man unto whom God will not count sin." (Rom. 4:7-8)
This means that we Christians are in an extremely fortunate condition: a situation of blessing in which God does not even count us as sinners! Instead, He counts us as righteous, apart from any works that we do (Rom. 4:6)!
The apostle John also taught this in his first letter:
"Whoever commits sin transgresses the law (or is lawless), for sin is the transgression of the law (or lawlessness). You know that Jesus Christ was manifested to take away our sins, and in Him is no sin. Whoever dwells in Him does not sin. Whoever sins has never seen Him nor has ever known Him." (1 John 3:4-6)
John carefully defines sin as lawlessness. Whoever, therefore, is lawless has never known Christ. The purpose Jesus came into the world was to take away our lawlessness by His death on the cross, and therefore whoever believes in Christ is no longer lawless before God. If you were still lawless before God you wouldn't be a Christian. In Christ there is no sin, and we are in Him - therefore, we are in that blessed place of sinlessness, which David was singing about! It is not by being lawful by our works that we are lawful before God. That is impossible. It is by being righteous through faith that we are delivered from lawlessness and have the assurance that we are His children. Every Christian can say that He is sinless in the judgment of God, both now and forevermore, according to John.
What a practical difference this would make in our lives if we acknowledged the truth of our true identity as God knows it to be! The apostle Paul long ago said that this is the great secret of victorious living (Rom. 6:11). Can you imagine what a difference it would make if instead of thinking that God sees all of your sins and disciplines you for all of them, you conformed your thinking to God's thinking (Rom. 12:2) and acknowledged that He looks upon you with perfect joy and delight because you are blameless in His sight? Would your days be different if you lived under God's perpetual smile rather than God's perpetual frown? Do you think you would be more, or less, inspired to serve the Lord with gladness if you thought that God declared you to be righteous every moment because of the blood of His Son? You do the math.
Praise God that according to the Scriptures, Christians are righteous in God's sight and are blessed with every spiritual blessing! This is how our Father in heaven wants us to understand our relationship with Him through Christ. However, the great objection to this transcendent New Testament truth is, of course, Hebrews chapter 12, verses 5-11. What shall we do with this passage which clearly says that God disciplines His children? In fact, it says that if God doesn't discipline you then you aren't even in His family! No other passage has been so badly misused in shaping the unfortunate 'Dennis the Menace' way of thinking.
Hebrews 12:5-11 is so powerful in a bad way because for most us - before we even approach the passage - we are naturally gripped by mere human and non-transcendent ways of thinking. The Biblical idea of righteousness through faith, it must be remembered, is God's wisdom and God's way of thinking, higher than the heavens, that doesn't make sense to the natural mind (Is. 55:9, 1 Cor. 2:14). How on earth can I be counted actually righteous if I am not actually righteous by my works? How "on earth" indeed! But the mystery of Christ is a heavenly truth, a revelation from God in the Gospel. The cross is foolish to the natural man, and it requires the Spirit to understand spiritual things. Yet even we Christians are often gripped by natural ways of thinking, and it is difficult for even us to believe how tremendous our salvation in Christ really is. When we speak about the "unsearchable riches of Christ" (Eph. 3:8), the "unspeakable gift" (2 Cor. 9:15) and the "love of Christ that passes knowledge" (Eph. 3:19), we usually get lost like laymen talking about high-level mathematics. Human beings, Christian or not, are prone to think of spiritual things like natural things, and so when we come upon a passage like Hebrews 12:5-11 we throw our hands up and say, "See! Darn, there it is... my relationship with God is like my relationship with my earthly dad."
Let's drop the natural presuppositions and think about the passage in light of the Gospel. When we take the time to do this we will notice things we never considered before. First of all, the context of the passage is all about persecution for righteousness sake. Christians are suffering for their faith and therefore need to be encouraged to persevere through tribulation (Heb. 12:4, 12). Jesus Himself is set forth as an example of suffering for the Christians: "Consider Him who endured from sinners such hostility against Himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted." (Heb. 12:3) In light of the context, then, the Fatherly discipline Christians will endure, because they are the righteous children of God, appears to be persecution. To put it more graphically, God permits non-believers to slaughter the righteous "all the day long" (Rom. 8:36), not because the righteous are being disciplined for their sins, but because God uses suffering to teach His children what their hope is, to the teach them about righteousness and the world's hostility to it, to teach them about His love, in order to show them that they can be more than conquerors through His love (Rom. 8:37), and to teach them that He works all things together for their good (Rom. 8:28). For God's children, the discipline of suffering is entirely about learning to trust in the sovereignty and love of God, learning to rest in the righteousness they have through faith, and learning precisely that they aren't suffering because of their sins, but rather because they are His righteous children. This is the lesson God wants His children to learn. This is what the disciple (or "training", which is a better translation of paideia than"discipline") is all about. Quite the opposite of what is usually thought!
Besides considering the context of Hebrews 12:5-11, we also should ask ourselves the most obvious question that seems to have gotten missed in the hasty handling of the passage. That question is this: if being disciplined by the Father proves that you are His son, and therefore every true son is disciplined, while everyone who is not disciplined is proven to be illegitimate and not a son (Heb. 12:8), then was Jesus, the Son of God, disciplined by the Father? It's funny how in all my Christian days I have never heard this question raised before. If we take the common interpretation of "discipline" in Hebrews 12:5-11 - which is that God the Father lovingly spanks all His children for their sins - then we must either say that Jesus was lovingly spanked by the Father for His sins, or that Jesus was not disciplined and therefore is not a son. Of course, no Christian is willing to say either of those things! In light of this problem there are only two remaining options: either Jesus is an exception to the passage, or we may really not understand what the "discipline" in the passage is all about. But the passage speaks emphatically that all sons are disciplined by the Father. There appears to be no exception, nor, in my mind, any need for an exception. Once we understand that the "discipline" in the passage is not spanking but training, then we can see that Jesus too, like David and all the children of God, was disciplined and could likewise say, "Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for Thou art with me; Thy rod and Thy staff they comfort me." (Ps. 23:4) God trains His children by bringing them through the valley of the shadow of death, not for their sins, but for righteousness' sake. Earlier in the Book of Hebrews the fact that Christ was trained by the Father is stated explicitly, and the connection with Hebrews 12:5-11 is unmistakable: "Though being a Son, He learned obedience from what He suffered." (Heb. 5:8) Therefore Jesus, the Son of God, was disciplined by the Father! This was not for His sins; and neither is the discipline which we undergo by the Father for our sins either.
A further proof of all this is that the Book of Job is quoted two times explicitly, and is alluded to repeatedly, throughout Hebrews 12:5-11 (Job 4:3-5, 5:17, 12:10, 21:7-9). The lesson we learn from the Book of Job is that Job suffered greatly at the hand of God and yet it was not because of his sin. Job was a righteous man and perfect in His generation. In fact, the reason why suffering came upon Job was because He was a righteous man! If we take the position that God disciplines us because of our sins we are taking the side of Job's three unhelpful friends. If we take the position that suffering comes upon the righteous because God wants to teach them to trust in Him, and to bring them forth as gold (Job 23:10, 1 Pet. 1:6-7), then we are taking the side of truth.
So yes, God does discipline His children, but not for their sins. The discipline - or better, the training (paideia) - whether it takes the form of persecution or any kind of suffering in general, is meant to train us children to think God's way and to trust in our Father in heaven. As hard as it is to fathom, the Bible amazingly teaches us that when we put our faith in Jesus Christ we are actually counted righteous before God. We are even counted as righteous as Jesus Christ (1 John 3:7), and our relationship with the Father is comparable to His relationship with the Father (John 17:20-23, Rom. 6:9-11)! We are justified through faith, and therefore God never sees us any other way than as justified. We are not under any law, rule or obligation that would bring upon us spankings if we failed to live up to it (Rom. 6:14). We can have the utmost confidence that even when we go through suffering it is not because God is spanking us for our sins. In fact, we can only triumph through our trials when we know that they are not spankings. The knowledge of God's delight in us and the truth that we are beyond the reach of all accusation enables us to face each trial with confidence and joy.
So how do you understand your relationship with God and your membership in God's family? When you put your faith in Christ did you merely become a member of His family, or did you become righteous through faith? Is the righteousness you possess through faith a legal fiction, which will keep you out of hell but has no current practical bearing? Or does God actually see you as blameless in Christ right now? Does God count your sins and frown on you throughout the day, or is He not counting, delighting in you all day long? Do you think your relationship with God is like Dennis the Menace's relationship with his parents, or like Jesus Christ's relationship with the Father? Which way does God want you to think?
"Knowing that Christ being raised from the dead dies no more; death has no more dominion over Him. For in that He died, He died unto sin once, but in that He lives, He lives unto God. Likewise you reckon also yourselves to be dead indeed unto sin, but alive unto God through Jesus Christ our Lord." (Romans 6:9-11)