–Originally published on FWB21 March 16, 2012–
Is there any difference between the judgment of God and His discipline? How can we tell? (You may want to get your Bible out for this one.)

These questions were sparked by a sermon from Matthew 18 a while back on forgiveness and the parable of the unforgiving servant. The last two verses in that parable are sobering ones, as they reveal a side of God we don’t like to talk about very often:

And in anger his master delivered him to the jailers, until he should pay all his debt. So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.

The context of the parable is Jesus’ discussion on church discipline (18:15-20–first between the two of you, then with another one or two people, then to the church) and Peter’s ensuing question of how many times to go through this process of forgiving a brother. A generous seven times? Nay, seventy times seven. Jesus then opens his parable with “Therefore the kingdom of heaven may be compared to…” So we’re definitely talking about the body of believers here.

The debt owed by the unforgiving servant is more than a lifetime’s wages (an estimated $10 billion in today’s figures–the wage earnings of 4,000 lifetimes!), so the implication is that the debt could never, ever be paid. What a picture of our sin debt before God! The servant has been forgiven a staggering amount, yet he hardens his heart and chokes his fellow servant, exacting a harsh punishment for the pithy amount he owes him (some four thousand dollars by the same figures). Ouch. The Master is so enraged that he un-forgives the servant his debt, requiring him to pay it in full. Jesus’ words pierce deeply: “So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.”

In a discussion following this particular sermon from Matthew 18, a friend of mine said he could not see the connection between this passage and others in Matthew that discuss outer darkness and the weeping and gnashing of teeth. His point was that God chastens His children to bring them back to Him, He doesn’t cast them out. He kept going back to Hebrews 12:5, stating that there is a difference between God’s loving discipline of His children and that kind of judgment. I’ve really been wrestling with these ideas. After much thought and study and consulting people I trust, I’m not so sure the line is that clear…

Let me explain, if I can, my train of thought.

First of all, the weeping and gnashing of teeth passages are primarily directed at the devoutly religious Pharisees–those who piously thought they were of God’s kingdom, but had missed the point. (Please take a moment to read this excellent blog post explaining those passages with fascinating insights.) The Pharisees are the ones of whom Jesus is speaking in His sermon on the mount when He says,

Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’ Matthew 7:21-23

The Pharisees are also included in the “sons of the kingdom” of whom Jesus speaks to the crowds after healing the centurion’s servant:

I tell you, many will come from east and west and recline at table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven, while the sons of the kingdom will be thrown into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Matt 8:11-12

(By the way, in case it is of interest, Luke has the statements from these two passages together in one place: Luke 13:27-28.)

Stay with me. (I hope you have your Bible out.) Sandwiched in between these two passages in Matthew (immediately after the first passage, actually, as a kind of conclusion to the sermon on the mount), are these words of Christ:

Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock. And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell, and great was the fall of it. Matthew 7:24-27

Enter now into the discussion: free will. Each of Jesus’ listeners (including the Pharisees) had the choice set before them to hear and do, or to hear and not do. And Jesus labeled those people wise and foolish, respectively.

There is another place in scripture that has much to say about the wise and the foolish: Proverbs. Many proverbs come to mind that bear light on this discussion, such as:

A fool despises his father’s instruction,
but whoever heeds reproof is prudent. Proverbs 15:5

The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge;
fools despise wisdom and instruction. Proverbs 1:7

He who neglects discipline despises himself,
But he who listens to reproof acquires understanding. Proverbs 15:32

A rebuke goes deeper into a man of understanding
than a hundred blows into a fool. Proverbs 17:10

Condemnation is ready for scoffers,
and beating for the backs of fools. Proverbs 19:29

Blows that wound cleanse away evil;
strokes make clean the innermost parts. Proverbs 20:30

Whoever spares the rod hates his son,
but he who loves him is diligent to discipline him. Proverbs 13:24

In light of all of these sayings of wisdom (and I’m sure I’ve overlooked some), it seems that the important difference regarding discipline is the heart. If a heart is seeking wisdom, then pain and discipline will indeed bring about the fruit of righteousness, as Hebrews 12 says, because that heart has been trained by it. However, if a heart hates correction and hardens against it, then the end result of pain and discipline will be bitterness, scorn, and further hardening. So discipline can be administered the exact same way with two very different outcomes!

Now consider Jeremiah’s plea to God:

Correct me, O LORD, but in justice;
not in your anger, lest you bring me to nothing. Jeremiah 10:24

God can correct in justice, or in anger. Consider to whom God’s wrath is directed, even in the context of this passage from Jeremiah: to the faithless idolaters–even among His chosen people, Judah.

Draw all these principles out to the full application of Hebrews 12, in its context. These Hebrew believers are facing intense persecution, and the author is writing to encourage and exhort them to endure, to remain faithful to God. He uses everything at his disposal to get through to them, from lofty descriptions of Jesus as our great high priest to dire warnings of the consequences of turning away. In fact, that awesome list of heroes of faith he mentions in Hebrews 11 ends with those who suffered torture

mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn in two,they were killed with the sword. They went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, afflicted, mistreated— of whom the world was not worthy—wandering about in deserts and mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth.

That sure looks and feels like judgment, but to those trained by pain and suffering, such treatment brings about holiness and righteousness. It is, in fact, discipline. (As a side note, I just recently became aware of the etymological connection between discipline and disciple. Just thought I’d throw that out there…)

It is possible, though, to allow such discipline to harden us and push us away from God. That’s the whole point of the warnings in Hebrews! If that happens, then it seems that what is meant as discipline eventually becomes judgment for those who do not endure through faith. They become hardened, scoffing at discipline and hating it, thus making themselves fools because they hear and do not obey. God then corrects in anger instead of justice. If they continue in unrepentance (that is, with a hardened heart), they eventually suffer God’s full wrath and eternal consequences for rejecting Him. So God’s discipline is the same, with two very different outcomes. One endures to the end, one does not.

Going back to the passage in Matthew, remember that the whole context is Jesus’ commands for church discipline. The unforgiving servant is the one who hardens himself and refuses to forgive his brother, even though he himself has been forgiven much. That hardening, left to cement in the bitterness of an unrepentant heart, is what eventually leads to eternal suffering of the weeping and gnashing of teeth variety (that is, to say, in seething anger toward God), as both Matthew and Hebrews demonstrate. That’s what happened to the Pharisees.

It is important to remember that everything God does is for His own glory. He receives glory through graciously drawing all men to Himself. He is unwilling that any should perish. But He is also holy and just. If our hearts are not soft and attuned to His, He will use any number of means to call our attention and bring us to repentance (if we will but heed His discipline and instruction). Whether we label it discipline or judgment, His purpose is to correct, and more times than not correction requires a humbling through suffering. God’s ways are higher than our ways, and His thoughts are higher than our thoughts. If we ultimately do not heed His gracious and merciful warnings and correction, then we justly deserve any judgment He pours out upon us.

Consider one more passage, words of Jesus, as a closing thought:

Then they will deliver you up to tribulation and put you to death, and you will be hated by all nations for my name’s sake. And then many will fall away and betray one another and hate one another. And many false prophets will arise and lead many astray. And because lawlessness will be increased, the love of many will grow cold. But the one who endures to the end will be saved. Matt 24:9-13

Oh, how my heart is burdened by meditating on such truths in a sober contemplation of the days in which we live. Let us not be apathetic! May the Word of God burn in our hearts! May we heed His warnings and take them seriously! May we carry humble, broken, and contrite hearts bent on forgiveness, because we have been forgiven much. And may we press on through trials and suffering, rejoicing in them, keeping our eyes on Jesus, enduring to the end in faith. Even so, come, Lord Jesus!