Does God Punish Christians?
First of all, we should note in the strongest terms that those who have placed their faith in Christ alone for salvation are spared eternally from the wrath of God.
As believers in Jesus Christ, we are promised eternal life. The full weight of judgement for our sin fell upon Christ. As Christians, we have been clothed in the righteousness of Christ. As Christians, we will never be subject to the wrath of God. The wrath of God is God’s just punishment of those who reject Him. Paul writes that we were all, in our unregenerate state, subject to God’s wrath.
Ephesians 2:1-3 And you 1were adead 2in your trespasses and sins, 2 in which you aformerly walked according to the 1course of bthis world, according to cthe prince of the power of the air, of the spirit that is now working in dthe sons of disobedience. 3 Among them we too all aformerly lived in bthe lusts of our flesh, 1indulging the desires of the flesh and of the 2mind, and were cby nature dchildren of wrath, eeven as the rest.
God’s wrath will come, according to Colossians 3:6 on the ‘disobedient.’ God’s wrath includes all of God’s judgement, culminating in an eternity separated from Him.
2 Thessalonians 1:6-12 6 1For after all ait is only just 2for God to repay with affliction those who afflict you, 7 and to give relief to you who are afflicted 1and to us as well 2awhen the Lord Jesus will be revealed bfrom heaven cwith 3His mighty angels din flaming fire, 8 dealing out retribution to those who ado not know God and to those who bdo not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. 9 These will pay the penalty of aeternal destruction, baway from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of His power,
But when we placed our faith in Christ alone for our salvation, we were removed from being objects of His wrath.
Romans 5:9 9 Much more then, having now been justified 1aby His blood, we shall be saved bfrom the wrath of God through Him.
1 Thessalonians 5:9 For God has not destined us for awrath, but for bobtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, 10 awho died for us, so that whether we are awake or asleep, we will live together with Him.
So the promise is that the believer in Christ will never be subject to God’s wrath.
Instead, as we examined last week, believers have been, according to Romans 8:29, predestined to become conformed to the image of His Son,"
So the life of the believer should be marked by increased resemblance to the image of Christ. We will discuss the issue of sanctification in full in a few weeks during our Adult Bible Class on Sunday mornings. This, according to the apostle Paul, is a work of the Spirit of God in us – a work that He will continue until it is complete.
Philippians 1:6 6 For I am confident of this very thing, that He who began a good work in you will perfect it until athe day of Christ Jesus.
It is how He finishes the work that we are addressing this morning. And that, is a process of refinement. So at this point I want to broaden the question a bit. Because as I was studying this week, it seemed as though the issue of God’s discipline of the believer really comes down to the idea of how God uses suffering to shape us into the image of Christ. And for this, we see a few categories into which to divide the topic. I want to move through these fairly quickly so that we can see God’s overarching plan at the end.
The most general category of suffering is the suffering we experience as a result of living in a fallen world.
Romans 8:20-22 20 For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of Him who subjected it, in hope 21 that the creation itself also will be set free from its slavery to corruption into the freedom of the glory of the children of God. 22 For we know that the whole creation groans and suffers the pains of childbirth together until now.
So-called ‘natural disasters fall into this category: floods, earthquakes, tornadoes – every evidence that we see of a fallen world that is around us. Death and disease are a result of the fall. Every funeral is a reminder that sin results in death.
Romans 5:12 12 Therefore, just as through aone man sin entered into the world, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men, because all sinned--
Also in this category are the sinful actions of sinful people. They have nothing against you – it’s nothing personal, but they are for themselves and you just happen to be in the way. Whether it is the unscrupulous business person or the guy that cuts you off in traffic – sinful people do sinful things. As a result, others suffer. Sometimes these are small men with small actions. Sometimes they are small men with big actions, such as wars and holocausts and pograms, ethnic cleansing – it all comes down to sinful people acting sinfully.
We may suffer as a result of sinful people doing sinful things – and we should not get bitter or angry, but should just chalk it up to the result of living in a fallen world.
The next category of suffering is, for lack of a better term, is suffering as a result of our own sinfulness. This itself falls into two categories: suffering as a natural consequence of sinful decisions and divine chastisement – what you might call a divine spanking.
SUFFERING AS A RESULT OF OUR OWN SINFULNESS
The first grouping is the natural consequences of our own sinful decisions. If you choose to have sex outside of marriage you may experience pregnancy or sexually transmitted diseases. If you choose to drink to the point of getting drunk and then climb into a vehicle, you may be arrested. If you persist in willful, unrepentant sin, you may be subject to church discipline. Paul describes this sort of suffering in 1 Corinthians 5 and 1 Timothy 1.
1 Timothy 1:20 20 1Among these are aHymenaeus and bAlexander, whom I have chanded over to Satan, so that they will be dtaught not to blaspheme.
1 Corinthians 5:1-5 It is actually reported that there is immorality among you, and immorality of such a kind as does not exist even among the Gentiles, that someone has ahis father's wife. 2 1You ahave become 2arrogant and 1have not bmourned instead, so that the one who had done this deed would be cremoved from your midst. 3 For I, on my part, though aabsent in body but present in spirit, have already judged him who has so committed this, as though I were present. 4 aIn the name of our Lord Jesus, when you are assembled, and 1I with you in spirit, bwith the power of our Lord Jesus, 5 I have decided to adeliver such a one to bSatan for the destruction of his flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in cthe day of the Lord 1Jesus.
In these cases, the church is called to do a hard thing – that is to ask a professed believer to leave the church, because he or she is in unrepentant sin. This is what Jesus teaches in Matthew 18 as well. Paul describes it as ‘turning a person over to Satan.’ What this most likely means is turning a person into the realm of Satan, which is the world, to suffer the natural consequences of their sinful choices. Notice in 1 Corinthians 5, that this was for "the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus." The hope is that such a drastic and loving action on behalf of the church would bring an erring brother or sister to repentance.
The second half of this category of suffering as a result of our own sin is divine chastisement – a divine spanking. This is when God, in His grace and mercy, bring such hardship to our lives that we are brought to sorrow and repentance. God’s chastising hand may bring emotional distress.
1 Samuel 16:14-15 14 aNow the Spirit of the LORD departed from Saul, and ban evil spirit from the LORD terrorized him. 15 Saul's servants then said to him, "Behold now, an evil spirit from God is terrorizing you.
The word translated here ‘evil’ spirit should probably be translated ‘troubling,’ or ‘distressing’ spirit. The Lord brought to Saul a troubled mind – an evidence of God’s patience and love for Saul. God’s plan in these situations is that His hand would be heavy upon us, so that we would be overwhelmed with godly sorrow, that would lead to repentance.
2 Corinthians 7:9-10 9 I now rejoice, not that you were made sorrowful, but that you were made sorrowful to the point of repentance; for you were made sorrowful according to the will of God, so that you might not suffer loss in anything 1through us. 10 For the sorrow that is according to the will of God produces a repentance 1without regret, leading to salvation, but the sorrow of the world produces death.
God’s hand of chastisement upon a believer is, in itself, a sign that we are sons of God.
Proverbs 3:11-12 11 aMy son, do not reject the 1discipline of the LORD Or loathe His reproof, 12 For awhom the LORD loves He reproves, Even bas a father corrects the son in whom he delights.
Hebrews 12:7 It is for discipline that you endure; aGod deals with you as with sons; for what son is there whom his father does not discipline? 8 But if you are without discipline, aof which all have become partakers, then you are illegitimate children and not sons. 9 Furthermore, we had 1earthly fathers to discipline us, and we arespected them; shall we not much rather be subject to the Father of spirits, and live?
This is the chastisement that Jonah felt in the belly of the great fish. But if we refuse to repent; If we continue to reject His hand against us, He may discipline us so severely that He takes us home to be with Him.
1 Corinthians 11:27-32 28 But a man must examine himself, and in so doing he is to eat of the bread and drink of the cup. 29 For he who eats and drinks, eats and drinks judgment to himself if he does not judge the body rightly. 30 For this reason many among you are weak and sick, and a number 1asleep. 31 But if we judged ourselves rightly, we would not be judged. 32 But when we are judged, we are disciplined by the Lord so that we will not be condemned along with bthe world.
The context is this: The Lord’s supper, as it was practiced in the first century was composed of three parts: footwashing, a fellowship meal and the ceremony of the bread and the cup. The whole service was to emphasize that we are part of the same body and that we are united in Christ. Well, the believers in Corinth, when they came together for the meal, they brought just enough for themselves, and they ate what they brought. The result was that some who came were getting drunk and being gluttonous, while others were going away hungry. The meal, that was supposed to be a symbol of community, became a license for individual debauchery. Paul says they are ‘guilty of the body and blood of the Lord.’ Because of this sin, the Lord had brought sickness on some of the individuals in the church, and even had taken some of them home to be with Him. If you don’t repent when God is chastening you, and you are bringing reproach upon His body, the church, you can expect a divine spanking.
James seems to point in this direction when he describes the remedy for sickness in chapter 5. Within the context, it seems that the best understanding of the prayer of faith for a sick believer is that the believer is sick because of sin.
James 5:14-15 14 Is anyone among you sick? Then he must call for athe elders of the church and they are to pray over him, 1banointing him with oil in the name of the Lord; 15 and the aprayer 1offered in faith will 2brestore the one who is sick, and the Lord will craise him up, and if he has committed sins, 3they will be forgiven him.
Our response when we experience suffering ought to be to examine our lives, to see where we might need to repent of our sin. if you are backsliding, repent.
SUFFERING AS A RESULT OF FAITHFULLY LIVING OUT OUR CHRISTIAN WITNESS
1 Peter 4:12-16 12 aBeloved, do not be surprised at the bfiery ordeal among you, which comes upon you for your testing, as though some strange thing were happening to you; 13 but to the degree that you ashare the sufferings of Christ, keep on rejoicing, so that also at the brevelation of His glory cyou may rejoice with exultation. 14 If you are reviled 1afor the name of Christ, byou are blessed, cbecause the Spirit of glory and of God rests on you. 15 Make sure that anone of you suffers as a murderer, or thief, or evildoer, or a 1btroublesome meddler; 16 but if anyone suffers as a aChristian, he is not to be ashamed, but is to bglorify God in this name.
This category of suffering is one with which we are familiar, in theory, if not in practice. This is just the fulfillment of Jesus’ words when He said ‘if they hate me, they will hate you.’ And ‘blessed is the one who endures persecution for my names’ sake.’ It is a third category of suffering.
And now I want to tie all of these threads together. Because no matter the reason for suffering, our Lord has one purpose in allowing us to experience suffering – and that is that we would be conformed to the image of Christ. To see this, I would like us to take a closer look at Hebrews 12.
This is the classic passage that deals with God’s chastening hand upon us. Usually, this is taken only in the negative sense of God’s chastening hand because of our unrepentant sinfulness. However, there are a couple of things that betray that analysis. First of all, in the wider context of the book of Hebrews, the author writes of Jesus as '‘learning obedience from the things which He suffered."
Hebrews 5:8 8 Although He was aa Son, He learned bobedience from the things which He suffered.
Now obviously Jesus was perfect. He never sinned. Yet in some way God the Father used suffering in Jesus’ life on earth to perfect His obedience to the Father.
There are some aspects of this passage that point towards suffering as a result of living in a fallen world. There are some aspects of this passage that point towards suffering as a result of a heavenly spanking. There are some aspects of this passage that point towards suffering as a result of our Christian witness. Overall, this passage brings all suffering under one banner – the sovereignty of God. This passage brings meaning to all suffering by relating our suffering to the suffering of Christ. For if He, being the divine Son, did not escape suffering; we, being the sons of God by faith in Christ, will face suffering also. And the Lord uses all suffering, no matter the reason, in His divine plan to grow us in holiness.
Hebrews 12:1-2 Therefore, since we have so great a cloud of witnesses surrounding us, let us also alay aside every encumbrance and the sin which so easily entangles us, and let us brun with cendurance the race that is set before us, 2 1fixing our eyes on Jesus, the 2aauthor and perfecter of faith, who for the joy set before Him bendured the cross, cdespising the shame, and has dsat down at the right hand of the throne of God. 3 For aconsider Him who has endured such hostility by sinners against Himself, so that you will not grow weary 1band lose heart. 4 aYou have not yet resisted 1bto the point of shedding blood in your striving against sin; 5 and you have forgotten the exhortation which is addressed to you as sons, "aMY SON, DO NOT REGARD LIGHTLY THE DISCIPLINE OF THE LORD, NOR bFAINT WHEN YOU ARE REPROVED BY HIM; 6 aFOR THOSE bWHOM THE LORD LOVES HE DISCIPLINES, AND HE SCOURGES EVERY SON WHOM HE RECEIVES." 7 It is for discipline that you endure; aGod deals with you as with sons; for what son is there whom his father does not discipline? 8 But if you are without discipline, aof which all have become partakers, then you are illegitimate children and not sons. 9 Furthermore, we had 1earthly fathers to discipline us, and we arespected them; shall we not much rather be subject to bthe Father of 2spirits, and clive? 10 For they disciplined us for a short time as seemed best to them, but He disciplines us for our good, aso that we may share His holiness. 11 All discipline afor the moment seems not to be joyful, but sorrowful; yet to those who have been trained by it, afterwards it yields the bpeaceful fruit of righteousness.
In the passage before us in chapter 12, we also note the prominent example of Jesus – verse 2
Hebrews 12:2 fixing our eyes on Jesus, the 2aauthor and perfecter of faith, who for the joy set before Him bendured the cross, cdespising the shame, and has dsat down at the right hand of the throne of God. 3 For aconsider Him who has endured such hostility by sinners against Himself, so that you will not grow weary 1band lose heart.
Just as God the Father planned Jesus’ suffering, for Jesus to be perfected in obedience, so also God uses suffering in our lives to perfect us in the image of Christ. Jesus thus becomes our example, our template for handling suffering – and submitting to suffering as Jesus did.
Notice that the purpose in considering the suffering of Jesus on the cross at the hands of ungodly men is so that we will not ‘grow weary and lose heart.’ in verse 4, the author reminds the readers that they have not endured suffering to the point of suffering martyrdom – the shedding of blood – in their struggle against sin. That is to say that you have not become so holy that people are throwing you on a cross to get rid of you.
Verse 6, you have forgotten the exhortation – or ‘encouragement’ that if you experience suffering, it means that you are sons of God. And again, there is a sense that we are to think if Jesus was the Son, and He suffered, then if we are sons, we should expect suffering. And we should grow from suffering in holiness.
In verse 10, we see that God’s purpose in all of our suffering, no matter the reason why we are suffering, is that we may grow in holiness.
Hebrews 12:10 but He disciplines us for our good, aso that we may share His holiness. 11 All discipline afor the moment seems not to be joyful, but sorrowful; yet to those who have been trained by it, afterwards it yields the bpeaceful fruit of righteousness.
The word translated here ‘discipline,’ is a word that is used both positively and negatively. In the negative sense, as punishment; but in the positive sense as ‘training.’ Here, the idea of training seems to be in mind. This passage seems to place all suffering under the same umbrella, that of God’s training us in holiness and maturing us in our faith.
Ultimately, all suffering falls under the rubric of God’s purpose of shaping us into the image of Christ.
Psalm 66:10 10 For You have atried us, O God; You have brefined us as silver is refined.
Here’s the overall point: if you are suffering, good. Because it means that God is shaping you, remaking you until you look like Jesus. So what should be our response to suffering?
Repentance if we are in sin. If you are bitter about your circumstances and your suffering, repent and learn to submit to God’s sovereign hand.
A second response: rejoicing.
James 1:2-4 2 aConsider it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter bvarious 1trials, 3 knowing that athe testing of your bfaith produces 1cendurance. 4 And let 1aendurance have its perfect 2result, so that you may be 3bperfect and complete, lacking in nothing.
Romans 5:2-5 and 1we exult in hope of the glory of God. 3 aAnd not only this, but 1we also bexult in our tribulations, knowing that tribulation brings about cperseverance; 4 and aperseverance, bproven character; and proven character, hope; 5 and hope adoes not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out within our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us.
A third response: a humble submission to the will of our loving heavenly Father, who desires through suffering to remove dross and make us pure.