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You read about it or hear about it all too often. A mother is arrested and charged with abuse for spanking her child at the supermarket; some lauded professional society of psychologists or pediatricians publishes a statement condemning all forms of corporal punishment as harmful to the development and well-being of children; national governments in “enlightened” lands pass legislation outlawing spanking.

In such a world, I am an outlaw. Infinitely worse, for such a world, the God of Scripture, the God who is, must be reprehensible.

I have a houseful of kids. And every one of them has heard their father say (doubtless on numerous occasions, and too often with sinful exasperation): “If I didn’t love you, I wouldn’t care that you acted in this awful manner. But because I love you, I will punish you when you rebel. I love you too much to leave you in your disobedience.” I learned this through experience as a child from my father and mother. And I continue to learn it from my heavenly Father.

The writer of Hebrews says the same. As he does so often, arguing from the lesser to the greater, he writes: “We have had human fathers who corrected us, and we paid them respect. Shall we not much more readily be in subjection to the Father of spirits and live? For they indeed for a few days chastened us as seemed best to them, but He for our profit, that we may be partakers of His holiness” (Heb. 12:9–10).

Therefore, as we consider the question of God’s wrath against His own, we can say with certainty that while it is real and painful, it is not without purpose.

The Reality

Other articles in this issue have addressed the perfection of God’s wrath. Unlike us humans, God always displays wrath without sin. And He must do so, for the defaming of His glory, the offending of His holiness, demands His perfect wrath. And His children are not excepted. The Scriptures are clear: “ ‘You should know in your heart that as a man chastens his son, so the LORD your God chastens you’ ” (Deut. 8:4).

Perhaps because “wrath” is easily associated with sinful anger, many people have used the word chastisement in references to expressions of God’s wrath toward His children. But not only does God lovingly chasten His elect, He metes out His chastisement more quickly on His own children than on those outside His family.

I have on occasion been with one or more of my children when we have witnessed some other child displaying wicked behavior toward a parent. The parent may give the child a verbal threat that is followed by further disobedience and no parental response. This pattern may continue several times until the parent gives up or gives in. There have even been times when, in the midst of such rebellion, I have made eye contact with the young rebel, giving him “the hairy eyeball”—that non-verbal “Knock it off you smart-aleck!” But my children know that my reaction to such behavior in them would be far more swift and painful. So also with God. He responds more rapidly and painfully to the sin of His children than to the rebelliousness of those who know Him not.

God metes out His chastisement more quickly on His own children than on those outside His family.

Here again Hebrews 12 is instructive. It says the Lord disciplines those He loves and punishes everyone He accepts as a son. (Incidentally, the older translations rendered the key verbs discipline and punish as chastise and scourge respectively—this marks our shifted attitude toward punishment as well as anything.)

The true father desires that the true child not be found rebellious and unworthy of the calling to inherit the father’s estate. A mark of a child’s authentic relationship with a father is the father’s willingness to bring correction, even when it is painful.

The Pain

A true parent wants what is best for his child. He wants the youngster to be content with life, satisfied, and fulfilled. Even so, it is God’s purpose that we glorify and enjoy Him forever, that we find our satisfaction finally and fully in Him. The Scriptures say that when we willfully rebel, God will render discipline, sometimes punishing seven times over (Leviticus 26 is replete with graphic images of the pain God will inflict on His disobedient people). The rod hurts. It is supposed to.

It is common to think that a parent who withholds such pain spoils the child. The Scriptures are far more blunt: “He who spares his rod hates his son, but he who loves him disciplines him promptly” (Prov. 13:24). Just as true love demands that we say we are sorry (often!), so also true loving chastisement will mete out pain as an instructional instrument. Of course, a time comes in every child’s life (hopefully!) when the rod is not necessary for correction—the father’s disapproving glance is enough to bring repentance. As we and our children grow more mature, our own wickedness and backsliding become sufficient punishment and rebuke for our souls (Jer. 2:19).

Does God ever take the life of a Christian to keep him or her from further sin? To seek to answer this question is to attempt to step behind the veil and discern the mind of God. When a child of God suffers, it is entirely appropriate for him or her to ask, “Is this suffering divine chastisement for some blatant disobedience?” It is, however, wholly inappropriate for others to ask that question of the suffering one. When a child of God dies in sin, we can only speculate as to God’s purposes. Of course, 1 Corinthians speaks of some “falling asleep” due to their sin with regard to the Lord’s Supper, so it would appear that God, in extreme cases, may take some believers home to Himself rather than allow them to wallow more deeply, ravaging themselves in sin.

Finally, we have the example of Jesus. The chastisement that brought us peace was laid on Him (Isa. 53:5), and that was a chastisement unto death, the infliction of which pleased the Lord (53:10).

Charles H. Spurgeon likened God’s chastisement of His children to the repeated mowing of fine lawns as compared to the relative neglect shown to unkept meadows. “To be very dear to God involves no small degree of chastisement,” he said. In a similar way, Jesus used the familiar image of the vinedresser, who necessarily must prune, trim back, and cut away the plant to increase its produce. This is always painful. The flesh dies hard. The pain can be deep and abiding. But the pruning is never meaningless.

Divine discipline and affliction are signs of God’s favor to those He loves.
The Purpose

We have seen that God’s wrath toward His children is real and is painful. But why? Shouldn’t God just love His children with tenderness and comfort? Again, the Scriptures are clear. First of all, divine discipline, punishment, and affliction are signs of God’s favor, given to those He loves (Prov. 3:12; Jer. 31:18). Don’t you agree that some kids rebel just to get a reaction from their fathers? Our Father’s reaction to sin, swift and severe, is a sign of love.

Second, we can be sure that God’s punishment of His children is meant to bring us to a recognition and acknowledgement of our rebellion. It is meant to be restorative. The Prodigal Son of Luke 15 turned toward home only when, through affliction, he realized the sorry state of his being. Seen in this light, God’s painful chastisement of His children is meant to restore us to fellowship with Him. The psalmist said: “When I kept silent, my bones grew old, … for day and night Your hand was heavy upon me.… I acknowledged my sin to You … and You forgave the iniquity of my sin” (Ps. 32:3–5).

Finally, God’s chastisement serves a purifying effect, crafting into our souls holiness in an increasingly Christ-like measure. God punishes the wicked to uphold the justice of His holiness; He chastens His children so they become more holy, more like Him. “Before I was afflicted I went astray, but now I keep Your word.… It is good for me that I have been afflicted, that I may learn Your statutes” (Ps. 119:67, 71). God says, in effect: “Because you are My son, I will punish you. You will feel My wrath because I love you. I mean to correct you, restore you, and prepare you to be more like Me.” Have you felt God’s hand heavy upon you? Have you asked yourself what sin may be behind this? Have you seen the purifying effect of affliction or chastisement on your soul?

Augustine said God was “mercifully rigorous” with him in order to give him pleasures without the bitter alloys of the world. Peter also used the image of metal being cleansed from impurities by the refining fires. In that day, the goldsmith would melt the precious metal to its liquid state to allow the impurities to rise to the surface. Then he would skim off the imperfections until he saw a flawless reflection of himself in the molten metal. So God sometimes melts us away in chastisement, removing sin and conforming us with ever-increasing glory to the image and reflection of Christ.

May His favoring, awakening, and purifying chastisement present His children faultless before Him on that great Day.

Wrath Against the Innocent

Wrath Beneath a Bushel

Keep Reading Righteous Wrath: The Wrath of God

From the February 2002 Issue
Feb 2002 Issue