Author’s Note: This is the third of three posts where I seek to draw out teaching on the fatherhood of God. In the previous post I looked at being adopted into the Father’s family as the “end” of our salvation. In this post I look at the fatherhood of God in the Christian life.
It was a story that had Hollywood licking its chops. By the age of nineteen, Frank Abagnale Jr. had successfully impersonated an airline pilot, a doctor, and a lawyer while fraudulently lining his pockets with millions of dollars. After being pursued all over the globe, including by the FBI, he was first arrested in France in 1969 and subsequently served several years in prison.
Abagnale’s story eventually made it to the big screen in 2002, where the strong performances of Leonard DiCaprio as Abagnale and Tom Hanks as an FBI agent received critical acclaim. Catch Me If You Can was a gripping story told with panache, but some worried whether it did too much to glorify this rampant flouting of law and order.
It might have. But when I saw the movie, I was gripped by a thread in the storyline that tragically unfolded between Abagnale and his father. Played brilliantly by Christopher Walken, Frank Abagnale Sr. was at turns concerned and fascinated by his son’s reckless and lavish lifestyle. In a culminating scene toward the end of the movie, their relationship received a quick summation when Abagnale Sr. firmly reminded his son, “I’m your father!” Abagnale Jr. shot back: “Then tell me to stop. Tell me to stop!”
I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a more poignant moment in film that held together both the purpose and the aching loss of fatherhood. And the purpose and loss of human fatherhood point us toward the nature of God’s fatherhood. At the core of God’s fatherly love toward us is a sacrificial love that issues forth in protective and fruitful discipline.
In my last post on fatherhood, I attempted to highlight that the high purpose of our salvation reaches its “end” in our adoption into the Father’s family. Adoption is that blessed reality where by grace we gain entrance through the Spirit into a relationship that the Son enjoys by nature. Through adoption, the abiding love the Father has for the Son, profoundly expressed at His baptism (Matt. 3:17), is that which we experience when we become a child of God: “See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God” (1 John 3:1).
But the Father’s love for us consists not only bringing us into His family. The Father’s love, once we are in, conforms us to His eternal Son.
God’s Conforming Love
Distortions of the Christian life are abundant yet have fairly reliable patterns. On the one hand, cold conformity to God’s law can be stressed in such a way that the priority of grace and dynamic relationship with a loving God is lost from view. On the other hand, grace and relationship can be emphasized such that the Christian’s responsibility to obey the law is all but muted.
The proper biblical shape of the Christian life must take its cues from our adoption, which was ensured through the plan and action of the whole Trinity. There is a familial and, therefore, relational dynamic that informs every aspect of what it means to be a Christian. What is more, the Trinity sets the environment and pattern for the Christian life, wherein we are called to holiness in the Son by the Spirit (1 Peter 1:14–16).
Thus, while there is a static notion of adoption through being united with Christ so that our identity is as sons and daughters of God the Father, there is a dynamism to life in the Father’s family as we grow to pattern our lives after God the Son. This is the dynamism of love—a love that is responsive to the Father’s prior love for us. As the Puritan Jeremiah Burroughs wrote: “Do all you do out of love, be not mercenary. A servant does not care to do anything further than he may be paid for it, but not a child; he does what he does out of love. Oh that we could bring all our obedience to be out of love to God.”1
Disciplined by the Father
While this obedience born of love is our great endeavor, we often fail. Though adopted into the Father’s family, though united to Christ, though indwelled by the Holy Spirit, we transgress God’s commands. We are not yet perfect. We struggle against sin.
It is in this context of struggle against sin that the writer of Hebrews introduces a profound teaching on the fatherhood of God involving discipline in the Christian life. Often, when my own children protest against my discipline, they want to detach it from my love. It can be a hard sell in the moment, but I try to remind them that the Bible consistently connects loving parents and faithful discipline (e.g., Prov. 13:24). This is patterned after our heavenly Father who loves His children and desires for them to be more like His Son. Therefore, He disciplines us. It is a sign that we’re not illegitimate children.
The context of Hebrews 12:4–13 is Christian endurance. In our resistance to sin, we are invited to consider being surrounded by a great cloud of encouraging witnesses and, further, drawn forth by the Captain of our salvation, Jesus Christ. He endured the cross and now enjoys life at the Father’s right hand. God intends to bring us fully to where He is, and a vital means by which He does this is fatherly discipline.
God’s discipline in the Christian life marks us out as legitimate children (cf. Prov. 3:11–12). Though it is perhaps counterintuitive in an age confused about the aims of love, discipline is evidence that the Father cares for us and desires to shape us. Loving discipline by the best of earthly parents has maturity as its aim. The aim of the Father’s discipline is to make us more and more like Jesus Christ.
This is an elementary factor in Christian experience that we are always in danger of losing through forgetting. The writer to Hebrews asks, “Have you forgotten the exhortation that addresses you as sons?” (12:5, emphasis added). We should never think that trials brought about by God’s discipline are things we move beyond. Discipline is a staple experience by all of the Father’s true children. To say otherwise is to forget or to be ignorant of Scripture.
This reminder is meant not for discouragement but encouragement. It is the confirmation of God’s love and care that we sometimes need. Say we didn’t have this word. We might be led to think God is against us when various trials come. Discipline involves hardship (v. 7) and can be unpleasant and painful (v. 11). But even this can be welcomed in the knowledge it is validation of the Father’s active love in our life. He’s a purposeful Father, working all for our good (Rom. 8:28).
Four Ways God Disciplines Us
What does discipline from a heavenly Father to earthly children look like? Let’s briefly look at four ways (some of the following thoughts come from Sinclair Ferguson’s excellent book Children of the Living God: Delighting in the Father’s Love).
First, He disciplines us differently. That is to say, there is a variety to His spiritual disciplining. Good parents know that different children need different training, depending on their personalities and stages of life. God deals differently with His many children in order to produce the appropriate fruit in our lives.
Second, the Father disciplines us through Scripture. God’s Word has as one of its ministries to rebuke (2 Tim. 3:16). It rebukes and chastens us as we read and study it. Scripture is not just about getting a “pick me up.” Think of Simon Peter, a man called to Him but who still needed severe discipline. Ferguson writes: “Our Lord’s first method [of discipline] was to use his word. Several times in the Gospels we find Jesus rebuking Peter, endeavoring to discipline his mind through exposition of truth.”
Third, and this is connected to the second way of discipline, the Father disciplines through preaching based on Scripture. Paul tells Timothy to rebuke (2 Tim. 4:2). Ultimately, the rebuke comes from Scripture, but a faithful servant of the Word will discipline us through faithful application of God’s Word as our minds are instructed and our consciences touched. This will take time, though. As you sit for a prolonged period under a preacher who is faithful to God’s Word, you will notice that as that Word is unfolded, it brings light and exposes those things of which we need to repent. The Spirit, working with the Word, reveals private and secret things to us. This often comes only in the atmosphere of a sustained and faithful ministry of the Word in the local church.
Last, the Father disciplines us by His hand through the circumstances of our lives. Think again of Simon Peter. His rebuke went beyond the verbal. In the circumstance of his denial, God used a servant girl and a rooster crowing in the early hours of the morning. Ferguson again writes, “The function of those experiences that left deep marks on his whole life and personality was to make him the kind of child of God that Christ wanted him to be.”
The Father uses many different means for one high goal in our lives: attaining “the knowledge of the Son of God” and “mature manhood, [which is] the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ” (Eph. 4:13).
The Discipline We Search For
Deep down, even the wisdom of this world grasps that fathers love their children through telling them no. Fatherly limits prevent foolishness and even death. Frank Abegnale Jr. desperately wanted his father to be a father—to tell him to stop his runaway life.
Life in the eternal Father’s family is not only bounded by God’s law, but it also has a positive orientation of conformity to the beautiful image of God’s Son. The Father’s discipline protects us, yes; even more, it has as its aim Spirit-induced fruit that gives off the aroma of Christ.
- Jeremiah Burroughs, The Saints Happiness (London, 1660), 501. ↩︎