Little Johnny willfully uses some of his family’s glass cups for Nerf target practice. His mother huffs into the room and sees glass shards all over the floor. She considers discipline, but decides not this time. He was just disciplined for this yesterday after all. She does not want to provoke him to anger. As it is, mom and dad discipline about 80% of the time and “lean into grace” the rest, as they are fond of saying, though usually when they’re distracted or too tired to handle a situation. Or when they just want to enjoy children being children. This seemed like one of those times.
Despite her best intentions, this mother—and the father who heads this home—are actually hating their son in these instances. “Whoever spares the rod hates his son, but he who loves him is diligent to discipline him” (Prov. 13:24). No decent parent hates his or her children. This proverb rides in on that assumption to reinforce the importance of diligence in discipline, and it stings in more ways than one. Parents can easily talk themselves out of persistent effort in discipline with vague notions of love and grace, supposing that discipline is contrary to compassion. I know the temptation firsthand. But this a form of hatred.
Parents aren’t the only party Solomon had in mind. After all, Proverbs was written to a “son,” which means the book was more than instruction for parents but for their children (Prov. 1:8, 10, 11, etc.). Children need attention, affection, and good conversation around the dinner table. Corrective discipline isn’t the whole of parenting. But it is a hole in much of our parenting. So is instruction in discipline. We need to do for our children what Solomon was doing for his—for the sake of our present children and for the sake of their future children.
We need teach our children about discipline. What should we say?
We should certainly say that discipline is a form of love. That’s biblical. But what about grace? This is where I think we can get hung up as Christians in particular. I’m convinced that we must get clarity on this subject before we can speak to our children with confidence.
Is Discipline Contrary to Grace?
Vague notions of grace are getting in the way of the grace of discipline. Put simply, discipline feels ungracious.
The apparent conflict is understandable. Isn’t it the kindness of God that leads us to repentance? Aren’t we under grace rather than law? God changes us from the inside out, but doesn’t discipline work in the opposite direction? Aren’t these proverbs part of the Old Testament and not repeated in the new? How can I expect my child to obey if he doesn’t have a new heart? Is parental discipline Christ-like?
Is there a Bible passage—specifically, a New Testament text—that addresses discipline in the home in light of the fullness of God’s grace come in Christ? A passage that will address these questions? A passage we can use to direct our parenting but also instruct our children?
The Longest Passage (Not) About Parenting in The New Testament
Here’s why Hebrews 12:5–11 is a premier passage on parenting. First, it teaches us about the Lord’s discipline by way of comparison with discipline in the home.
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.
For the Lord disciplines the one he loves,
and chastises every son whom he receives.”
… For what son is there whom his father does not discipline? (Heb. 12:5–7)
The author draws out this comparison based on assumptions about what is normal, right, and good in any home, and therefore especially the Christian home. It does not directly instruct us on parenting, but it does teach us about parenting by way of inference. How could discipline be ungracious if God is using it to illustrate his own gracious ways toward us? Do we know more about grace than he does?
Second, this text not only helps us with discipline, but it helps us instruct on discipline, for here the Lord speaks to his children concerning his discipline. Apparently, discipline is hard to receive even from a perfect Father!
Solomon spoke to his children about discipline. Our Father has spoken to us to us. What should we say to ours?
Children need it simple and so do we. From Hebrews 12:5–11, here are three messages we must speak to our children concerning discipline. In discipline we love our children by pursuing their long-term good through short-term pain. Here’s that simple message in a three-part sermonette, spoken as if from a father to a son.
First, Discipline Is Not for Everyone (And That’s a Good Thing for You)
Son, when we have your friends over, we feed them pizza. If they get muddy, we give them a change of clothes. But we will not discipline them according to God’s Word (Prov. 13:24; 22:15; etc.). That’s because they are not our children and we do not love them as much as we love you. “‘The Lord disciplines the one he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives.’ . . . God is treating you like sons” (Heb. 12:6–7).
So, son, remember, discipline is not for everyone. It is a gift, a privilege. Yes, it is proof that you have done something wrong, but even more it is proof that you belong to us. We chastise you because we have already received you. We are consistent in discipline because we love you that much. By it we are not driving you away, but driving out the foolishness that would lead you away. By it we are seeking you. Which is why we are eager to enjoy our fellowship as family after discipline is done.
Just as important, remember that discipline is not optional for us as your parents. For us it is a given, a responsibility. “For what son is there whom his father does not discipline?” (Heb. 12:7). That kind of father should be unheard of. For that reason, when you are in trouble with us, avoid two temptations. Do not reject discipline by “[regarding] it lightly” (Heb. 12:5). Don’t roll your eyes or even just plain get through it. Embrace it by learning from it. Alternatively, do not “be weary when reproved,” and think that discipline is a form of rejection (Heb. 12:5). Don’t let our discipline lead you to give up on yourself or on us. Grasp it as your life and our love. Remember, discipline is not only God’s will for you, but also for us. In fact, it is his gracious will for you through us.
Discipline says something wonderful about you: you belong to us, and you are dearly loved. But it also does something wonderful in you and for you.
Second, Discipline Is for Your Good (Even Though It Feels Bad)
You don’t need us to tell you that discipline is painful (that is, if we are doing it right). “All discipline seems painful” (Heb. 12:11, emphasis mine). That’s an important acknowledgment to make. This pain feels different at different ages. If we were diligent to spank you in your younger years, we reasonably should be done by age five or six. But that doesn’t mean discipline is done, only that it takes different forms. At every stage, discipline is painful, or it is not discipline.
1. For a helpful article on spanking, see Andy Naselli, “How Should Parents Discipline Their Children? Is Spanking Wrong?
You do, however, need us to tell you discipline is purposeful. Just as it is with the Lord’s discipline: “he disciplines us for our good” (Heb. 12:10). What good does he intend? That we should “share in his holiness,” that we would be “subject” to him, and that we would bear “the peaceful fruit of righteousness.” (Heb. 12:10, 11, 25).
While our discipline is not exactly like that—we can’t make you holy—it is something like that, otherwise God would not make the comparison between the purpose of his discipline and ours. In a world that dehumanizes people, we cultivate in you love for the beauty of holiness. Further, in a world that rejects authority, we nurture respect for all proper authority, beginning with ours. “We have had earthly fathers who disciplined us and we respected them” (Heb. 12:9). We choose our commands, avoid idle threats, and train you to respect and obey our every word—all the way, right away, and with a happy heart—with this prayer: that you would not “refuse him who is speaking” (Heb. 12:25). Finally, in a hostile world, we want you to be peaceful and peacemaking. We want a happy relationship with you and for you to be good at relationships with siblings, colleagues, and one day a spouse. The pain of discipline is real, but so is the happiness, the humility, and the peace it brings.
Now for something all of us need to be told: discipline is never perfect. Scripture says of earthly parents, “they disciplined us … as it seemed best to them, but he disciplines us for our good” (Heb. 12:10, emphasis mine). This is strangely encouraging for you and for us. First, it means that discipline is flexible. God gave all parents the same commands but also different children, some whose rebellious wills are harder to break than others. We gave us different circumstances. He also gave us judgment to consider what is best, and so we take pains to do our best. That is not a pass for us parents to discipline without diligence or thought, only that we are expected to work out the details on our own. Some of your peers are disciplined differently because the parents are not doing their job. But in some cases, it is because they are a different family. That helps us avoid judging the family down the street recognizing we will all stand before our judge in heaven.
Which leads to a second encouragement: unlike the Lord’s discipline, our discipline is fallible. God’s Word on parenting is perfect, but our implementation is not. It’s great to know he is much better at this than us! We have erred in our timing in discipline and have embarrassed you before others or confused you when you forgot what happened. We have erred in our intensity and our consistency by parenting according to our mood, provoking you to anger or to bet against the odds. We have erred even our intentions for you. In these ways we have failed you. This is hard to admit, but it’s good. For this acknowledgment of our parenting imperfections helps you know the Lord is better at this than your parents. It is also a means of our growth as parents, lest we become tyrants who justify every parenting decision as if we received it from heaven. We are doing God’s work, but we are not gods.
There is one more thing to tell you for your good: in God’s providence, even imperfect discipline is productive. When we apologize to you, please forgive us. But also, don’t fail to learn the lesson we were (imperfectly) teaching you. God works in all of us from the inside out. But he also works on children from the outside in through parental discipline. What else could Solomon have meant when he wrote this?: “Folly is bound up in the heart of a child, but the rod of discipline drives it far from him” (Prov. 22:15).
Discipline shapes your vision of good and bad, beautiful and ugly, true and false, and it sensitizes your conscience so that when you do sin you feel bad, ugly, and false to the truth, even to him. You may not be a Christian just yet, but you are his creation, and he is your Creator. Discipline puts you in your place so that you might know where God is in his.
In all these ways, discipline is for your good. Now, here is something discipline is not.
Third, Discipline Is Not Forever (But Its Benefits Are)
As we say, God’s timing is perfect. That’s true in the case of discipline in at least two ways.
Here’s the good news: the pain is temporary. “For the moment all discipline seems painful” (Heb. 12:11). That’s why we don’t drag it out. That’s why we don’t glare at you for days. We bring the pain and then we move to enjoy a peaceful relationship, which is discipline’s reward. But there is better news still.
The pain of discipline is momentary, and yet the fruit of discipline can last forever. The same discipline that trains you to live in peace with others in this life, trains you to for peace with God for life eternal. How? By teaching you your need for forgiveness and a new heart and training you to respect and receive God’s Word. The Lord’s discipline is painful and temporary, just like ours. But unlike our discipline, his timing, his intensity, and his consistency are perfect. And the peace he gives lasts forever.
Here’s some surprisingly sobering news: the process of discipline lasts for a short time. “For they [our parents] disciplined us [their children] for a short time as it seemed best to them” (Heb. 12:10). Hopefully, you’re seeing that discipline is valuable training, but it is a limited time opportunity (Heb. 12:11). There will come a time when we will no longer discipline you. Not because you won’t have need of it or because we won’t love you anymore. We will always be your parents, but we will not always have the same authority over you that we do now. So, let us both take full advantage of these short years.
In the same way, take full advantage of the Lord’s discipline. He disciplines us in this pilgrimage to heaven, responding with correction when we sin, but also proactively conforming us to the image of his Son so that we might not sin. If the Lord answers our prayers for you, then one day you will share in his holiness, you will walk in obedience, and you will know his peace. His discipline is not forever, but in these ways, his discipline is for forever.
2. The readers of Hebrews 12:5–11 were not being persecuted because of sin but because of faithfulness. For this reason it is important for us to say that the Lord’s discipline may include corrective discipline as the Lord responds to specific sins, but it may also be formative through suffering in order to prepare us not to sin.
Discipline in the Home, God’s Grace for Here and Heaven
Parents, back to you. Yes, there is more to parenting than discipline and there is more to discipline than what we find here. But there is not less. And there is plenty here to ponder.
Scripture disabuses us of the notion that discipline in the home is contrary to grace for heaven. If discipline is from hatred or interest in externals alone, or alternatively if we neglect it, then it most certainly is contrary to grace. But in that case, it is also not discipline as the Bible understands it.
Discipline is not just something we and our children need to get through. Discipline is something we need. It is how the Lord gets through to us. Discipline forms our children for this world but also for the world to come. Discipline informs our children concerning their nature and the nature of God. No, discipline cannot save them, but it can save them a lot of grief in this life, and it can prepare them to receive God’s grace in Christ for the next. In short, discipline is not contrary to grace, but a means of grace for here and for heaven.
So, let us give ourselves wholly to it. And by it let us give ourselves wholly to our children for heaven’s sake and for theirs.
May the Lord bless our children better than our parenting deserves.