June 19, 2024

Punishment, Disciple, and Mercy

Parents should take parenting advice from God the Father. After all, God compares himself to earthly parents (Matt. 7:11). He has also been parenting for a long time (see the phrase “eternally begotten” in the Nicene Creed). So, what does the Father’s example (including words and actions) say about mercy and punishment in the face of sin and the misbehavior of earthly children?

First, God’s example suggests the average parent might over-emphasize punishment for misbehavior. The Bible says that God does not go on punish misconduct in the regenerated person, nor in His Son on their behalf. Sin for Christians was completely punished once in Jesus Christ (Heb. 9:28). Even though Christians continue to sin in our pre-glorified state on pre-renewed earth, the Father punished all past and future sins of Christians one time in Christ. And through Christ’s resurrection, we have New Life, which is no less than the ability to be sorry for our sins. God is rich in mercy (Eph. 2:4), and while Christians still sin, even the most novice Christians will acknowledge they don’t seem to get “punished” for their sins as much as they deserve. This may be the primary evidence of the richness of God’s mercy. A deeper reflection on the Bible reveals that we fact, get punished for sin at all. Punishment, or wrath, for sin was reserved for Jesus (past) and the unregenerate (future). And that’s it. If you are a Christian, you are not punished for sins.

Second, we are not called to punish our firstborn for the sins of our other children (Isaiah 53:10). There are certain things that the Father and Son do that humans cannot (thanks be to God). Instead, parents should be rich in mercy toward their children according to the example set by the Father in his mercy to us. God delights in mercy (Micah 7:18), which can only be shown when it is undeserved, such as with a misbehaving child or a child who should know better. Because of our experience as sons and daughters of God, Christian parents can show much more mercy than they instinctively do without fear of becoming overly permissive or negligent. (Note: In practice, I find showing mercy when my instinct is to punish to feel artificial and scandalous. I suspect that this experience is the effect of sin, and the expression of mercy becoming more natural to be the work of the Holy Spirit in regeneration.)

Third, parents’ punishment of a child in the form of retribution is generally ineffective in creating genuine sorrow for the offense. This fact is supported by research and experience (consider the penal system in the US, for example). More often, punishment causes contempt for the person in authority. This is probably because, after Jesus’ punishment, God reserves punishment for the unregenerate or those outside the fold (not my sheep (John 10:26)). The Father doesn’t punish Christians because he has already punished his only begotten Son (our older Brother (Rom. 8:17)) once and completely for their past and future sins. Parents should consider that their instinct to punish might result from sin. They should also consider that if they are an instrument of punishment (see past discussions on spanking in this blog), it is only done through the command and under the authority of God. Because of sin, parents have an instinct for selfishness and not justice.

Fourth, parents need a different action to extend mercy and train their children as the Father trains us (Heb. 12:6). That word is discipline, and parents must distinguish between punishment and discipline.

Broadly speaking, punishment is a retroactive activity parents can do in response to misbehavior to create a sense of sorrow and repentance. On the other hand, discipline is primarily proactive action parents can take to avoid misbehavior and promote godliness in children.

There is more than enough evidence the Bible says parents must discipline their children. Many passages suggest the Bible often uses discipline as another word for training. Most references to discipline are likely discussing what to do before children sin, to help your child avoid sin, or to give the parent peace in the future (Prov. 29:17). Christians will suffer in this life. Still, that suffering comes from the abundance of the mercy of the Father (I Cor 11:32). He disciplines (trains) us because He loves us and wants to purify us and eliminate sin from our lives and increase a desire for Himself in us. Discipline should primarily be an active (not reactive) parenting strategy to avoid misbehavior in children. Once children misbehave, perhaps plans for discipline need to be reviewed, but mercy is what should flow from the heart of the godly parent. Mercy is often expressed through discipline when God is acting to save his children from death (Prov. 19:18).

The result of mercy can be a sensitization to the significance of misbehavior on the part of the child. The child should feel increased motivation to run from misbehavior because of the parent’s mercy (as well as patience, forbearance, love, affection, acceptance, etc.). God is currently doing this very thing to all Christians, and it makes sense that Christian parents can be the tool that God empowers to make this change happen in others, especially our children. This repentance process can take a very long time as God takes our whole lives to free us from sin.

The decisive act of freedom from disobedience in children (and all people) is unity with Christ (I Cor. 15:22). Even so, all parenting (which extends well beyond adulthood) should be a reflection of or response to the ultimate punishment of the Father poured out on the Son, and the heart of mercy the Father has for his children (Eph 2:4-7).

AJ Switzer

This name is a moniker so that the text can speak for itself. I am developing what I can write about more than how I write. I use AI to edit my stuff.

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