Does God discipline those whom God loves?

Is being a follower of Jesus primarily about experiencing and living in God’s love, or primarily about living out the disciplines of discipleship? Is it about knowing that we are loved and accepted as we are, or about the need for change and transformation on the journey from sin to salvation? Is it about allowing God to do his sovereign work in us, or about the things we need to do in response to his love? To each of these questions, dear Reader, I am sure you are crying ‘False dichotomy!’—and yet many church contexts and cultures lean to one of these rather than the other, and it shapes the preaching, teaching and general ethos of the church community.

Does God disciplines those whom God loves? At first glance, this question is easy to answer in the light of Prov 3.12: clearly, yes. But a single text cannot settle an issue, especially a text that talks of discipline in physical ways (‘spare the rod and spoil the child…’; compare Prov 13.24) which we now find problematic for all sorts of reasons. And yet the principle is reappropriated in the new covenant in Hebrew 12.6, and in the context of the eschatological struggle between the power of sin and the work of the Spirit, as an illustration of what it means to be children of God—so it is not easily set aside.

But the question needs to be grappled with for at least two specific reasons. The first is in response to the ever-common mantra ‘Love is love’. Well, it isn’t. Love is sometimes self-seeking love, manipulative love, co-dependent love, immature love, needy love, indulgent love, self-giving love, or selfless love—and not all of these could claim to accurately picture the love that God has for us in Jesus, poured into our hearts by the Spirit (Rom 5.5). To proclaim that ‘God is love’ without explaining what this love looks like is at best meaningless, and at worst misleading.

The second reason is our ongoing struggle to actually understand the Jesus we encounter in the pages of the gospels. On the one hand, here we find the Jesus who is radically inclusive and welcoming, who preaches the coming of the kingdom of God to the unexpected and the marginal, who confronts the powerful and the religiously complacent, and who brings healing and forgiveness to those who never expected it. On the other hand, here we also find the Jesus who does not shy away from the reality of God’s judgement, who urges a response to his message without which there will be catastrophic consequences, and who is ferocious in his condemnation of those who refuse to listen. Having flung open a wide gate of invitation, Jesus directs us to a very narrow path of discipline and discipleship if we are to follow him. At one moment it is all about God’s grace; at the next it all hinges on our response. It is the same Jesus warmly inviting us to ‘Come to me, all who are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest’ (Matt 11.28) who also warns us that ‘Unless you repent, you too will all perish!’ (Luke 13.3). Many traditions in the church focus on one of these Jesus’ and not the other—but we are not following the real Jesus unless we listen to both.

Andrew Wilson has just published a revised version of his PhD looking at just this question in Paul’s first letter to the Christians in Corinth. Wilson is Teaching Pastor at King’s Church, London, which is part of the NewFrontiers network, and a regular contributor to the UK Think Theology blog. His thesis, The Warning-Assurance Relationship in 1 Corinthians, is published in the unaffordable-to-mere-mortals WUNT II series by Mohr Siebeck—but I hope that it will be made available in a more accessible form in the future.

The focus of Wilson’s study is the strange tension—contradiction even—in 1 Corinthians between Paul’s statements of assurance to his readers, of God’s faithfulness and their own resultant assured persistence in faith, and his stark warnings of judgement and faith which could result in their falling away from salvation. It is striking that Paul begins his letter—which contains rebukes for some serious pastoral, ethical and theological errors—with a deep note of assurance which has often been cited by succeeding generations of believers:

He will also keep you firm to the end, so that you will be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is faithful, who has called you into fellowship with his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. (1 Cor 1.8–9)

and this parallels other statements of assurance in his letters, such as Phil 1.6. Yet this contrasts sharply with serious warnings in the passages that follow, the one most often quoted in current debates coming in chapter 6:

Or do you not know that wrongdoers (adikioi) will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor male prostitutes nor practicing homosexuals nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. (1 Cor 6.9–10).

Paul goes on to say ‘such were some of you—but you have been washed…’ but this does not negate the warning. Paul appears here to be entertaining the possibility that some of his readers might indeed behave like the adikioi and so might indeed forfeit their assured inheritance, else his warning is a rhetorical flourish only without any actual persuasive effect. The contrast between assurance and warning comes most clearly in the chapters about ‘idol meats’ in chapter 8 to 11, where Paul not only applies the lessons from the Exodus wilderness wanderings (where a generation failed to attain what God had planned for them) to the Corinthians—but even includes himself in the warnings he is giving to others:

Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last; but we do it to get a crown that will last forever. Therefore I do not run like someone running aimlessly; I do not fight like a boxer beating the air. No, I strike a blow to my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize. (1 Cor 9.24–27)

Paul appears here to entertain the possibility of his own disqualification as something real, not imagined—despite the repeated assurances he gives of God’s faithfulness.

Given the awkward tension here, it is not surprising to find that some commentators dismiss Paul’s warnings as mere rhetorical strategy in order to persuade the Corinthians of his concerns, whilst never really doubting the statements of assurance. Others have taken the opposite interpretive strategy, and supposed that Paul’s assurances are there merely to endear himself to the Corinthians through flattery, when the warnings are the serious content of his message. Wilson takes one of each of these (Judith Gundry and B J Oropeza) as his conversations partners through an exegesis of each of the important passages in 1 Corinthians. Following an introduction to issues in the interpretation of Paul (which is comprehensive and quite compressed, so challenging for anyone without a basic awareness of the key debates) and an overview of questions about 1 Corinthians (which he believes to be a unity), he turns to each warning or assurance passage in turn to explore their significance within the overall picture. His approach is sensible and accessible, and he is not afraid to take on the ‘big guns’ in commentary with his own view, giving good reasons where he disagrees with others. I was impressed with Wilson’s willingness to turn aside when necessary, for instance to address the question of whether Paul’s language in 1 Cor 15.22 really has universalist implications, but his ability not to be distracted by tempting complications inviting comment, such as the meaning of the terms in 1 Cor 6.9 and the myriad of interpretive issues in 1 Cor 11.

Perhaps not surprisingly, Wilson concludes that the two options noted, which downplay either the warnings or the assurances, are not persuasive—but he does so based on exegesis rather than reaching for wider theological assumptions. Instead, he argues that these two things must be held in tension and, further, that this does not arise from the incoherence of Paul’s thinking, but from a deliberate and measured understanding of the inter-relationship between grace and obligation, and a theological anthropology which sees divine and human action as an integrated partnership. Moreover, we see exactly the same tension at work in all Paul’s other letters.

Paul is confident that all of his converts will persevere in faith, yet he also insists that they must be diligent to persevere and live lives of ethical propriety. That is how Paul can assure the Romans that the eschatological verdict over their lives is already secure, and yet insist that everyone will be judged in accordance with their works (Rom 2.6–11, 3.21–26, 5.1–11). It is how he can assure all those in Christ that they are, in a real sense, already glorified and inseparable from God’s love, and yet plead with Gentiles to continue in gods kindness lest they be cut off. It is why he uses such strong language about approaching the judgement seat of Christ mindful of the risk of ‘destroying’ one’s brothers and sisters, despite his conviction that believers will be kept safe from every created thing. (p 166)

But Wilson also notes that, in this tension between assurance and warning, Paul’s own preaching and teaching (which he talks of us ‘the word of God’, 1 These 2.13) has a pivotal role as the agent of God’s action.

Paul believes that, as a result of gods faithfulness, grounded in the Corinthians’ participation in Christ, and through the agency of divine grace at work within them by the Spirit, his urgent warnings will somehow be efficacious: God will bring about a response of repentance and obedience within the church, and will ensure that they continue in faith rather than falling into destruction. (p 168)

In other words, if Paul were to fail to give warnings for the Corinthians to heed, the danger of destruction which he paradoxically warns of might actually come about. And Paul himself is not exempt from this paradox.

The grace of God, for Paul, is finally responsible for effecting his labour in the gospel, and ensuring that the original grace-gift does not prove empty, but this in no way diminishes the need for Paul’s hard work, no reduces him to a passive vehicle through God acts unilaterally. Paul strives, but with the energy which God has powerfully worked within him.

These conclusions sit comfortably alongside the observations of John Barclay about the nature of grace and its relation to human action and the need for response—though Wilson has some minor questions about Barclay’s approach whilst largely agreeing with it.

This is why I hope that some form of this thesis will be made more widely available in the future. Wilson not only enables us to read this issue in Paul better; he also alerts us to the need to read more carefully other parts of the New Testament, and indeed the whole of Scripture (including of course the dramatic language of both assurance and threat in the Book of Revelation). More than that, Wilson alerts us to something absolutely vital in our current debates about grace and ethics: that the grace of God is a free gift offered to all regardless of worth; but it is also a costly gift which demands a response and which cannot be treated lightly.

And the lessons here will also shape our preaching and our pastoral strategies, as we proclaim the abundant generosity of God and set out the costly demands of the gospel. Do travel to a library near you and dive into this important study.

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24 thoughts on “Does God discipline those whom God loves?”

  1. Yes, I was one of those crying, ‘false dichotomy!’ I have long believed that the opposite of love is not discipline – or even anger – but indifference, largely due to my experience as a parent. If one of my children, all now in their 30s, decided that it was ok to drink and drive I would be uncaring and unloving if I did not tell them very strongly that it was wrong and dangerous.

    I think one of the problems is that judgement has come to be seen very largely only in terms of eternal damnation, a threat which God hangs over us to terrify us. Hard to see as the action of a loving parent and brought into disrepute by its abuse by those in authority to maintain their own power. I have come to understand God’s judgement as consequence; not, if you do those things God will burn you in hell but, those things are dangerous and destructive and will damage, and potentially destroy, you body, mind and soul. More complicated than this of course, because our actions don’t only damage ourselves but others, but a helpful way of understanding the tension.

    • Thanks Anne…but one observation and one comment.

      First, I think the Scriptures do picture judgement as consequence, and theologically that is vitally important. But Scripture adds to that the role of the just God in ensuring that consequences happen—else human agency has no meaning.

      Second, if it is unloving to fail to warn our children, how come so many theological traditions and church cultures cannot get their heads round this in relation to the fatherhood of God? There’s always the argument of misuse of such language—but that generally does not put us off using it in human relations…?

      • ‘…if it is unloving to fail to warn our children, how come so many theological traditions and church cultures cannot get their heads round this in relation to the fatherhood of God?’

        Please excuse me butting in, Ian, but I think this is quote of the year so far! Your question here is fundamental to how people are approaching the issues which currently absorb so many of us. It addresses who God is, who we are, and how he relates to us and we to him – it sits at the very heart of the Gospel.

      • Hi Ian — I wanted to make a comment on your old post about Matthew 25, but I couldn’t figure out how to do it, so I’m off-topic here.
        I’m wondering if “the least of these” and “least of my brethren” are correct translations of the original. I noticed that the old Syriac translates these phrases as “the little ones” and “my brethren, the little ones”. This changes the meaning considerably, from referring to a fraction of Jesus’ disciples to referring to the disciples generally. If you haven’t tired of the topic, would you care to comment? Thanks.

  2. Yes I agree with your observation as to God’s role in ensuring consequences happen.

    As to your second point I can only echo…? Is it to do with the prioritising of Jesus as Saviour over against Him as Lord or is that another issue entirely?

  3. Thankful you, again, Ian.

    I’m reminded of the dichotomy as reflected by Dick Lucas (teaching on Hebrews some years ago). If I recall correctly it ran something like;
    ‘Who are saints? Those who persevere. Who will persevere? The saints.’

    On a tangential issue….without this blog many of us have no access to beefier biblical or new thinking. The books are too pricey for a pension and, practically, there’s no chance of borrowing them within a zillion miles. If dioceses would set up area libraries that would be a help….

  4. 1 Are we not to be changed more and more into the likenes of Jesus, which will inevitable involve God’s discipline as part of discipleship in our union with Christ?
    2 Is this not through the passive/activity and the active/passivity through the meeting of God’s grace (by, in and through Holy Spirit) with human responsibility? Is the behaviour change, motivation, desires, mind renewal after conversion not to be effected as a result of and conversion and all that Christ is – the imperatives flowing from the indicatives.
    3 Is not discipline needed as part of the process of our sanctification? This inevitably
    4 Does Wilson place 1 Corinthians in the context of 1+2 taken together? I presume so?
    5 I also take it as read that Wilson throughly deals with what is taking place at Corinth and the Church there. Paul doesn’t really know who there has truly been saved, and realises that there will be a mixture of those who have and haven’t, those that persist to live their former lives, ways of living (whether saved or not) mixed with former beliefs, so he is addressing the mixed, and mixed up congregation. If effect they are saying “we can have all this PLUS Jesus as well .He is addressing a first generation church who haven’t been raised from childhood as Christians, is he not, indeed much like himself, raised in Judaism, a pharisee? He knows the temptations and self -wrestling to revert to old ways, does he not (eg Peter.), knows weakness, brokeness, thorn, his greatest of sinners, but at the same time , cuaght up into the third heaven. In effect, in modern language, he can relate to them. He is more than well “qualified” to warn both with positive and negative, discipline/ language.

  5. This took me back (more years than I care to remember!) to my first week at Cambridge. At the ‘squash’ given by the college Christain Union Mark Ruston spoke. I can recall him saying that the Christian life is like a club where the joining fee is nothing, but the annual subscription is the whole of your life.

      • Yes!!! Good to hear from you and to see you are looking at a good theological site. I’m wary of putting my email address here. If you would like to get in touch, let’s just say that although I’m not a vicar, I am in the London Diocesan directory…

  6. I am not at all familiar with NewFrontiers. I have had a quick look at their website and could not find what I would call a Statement of Faith. Am I missing something?
    Phil Almond

      • Matt
        I was aware of the re-organisation structurally within NFI leadership after Terry left, but I assumed they were still holding to their foundational doctrines and principles. Does the removal of these stated 17 now suggest flexibility over doctrine? What now holds NFI together if not agreement on theology & spirituality? Will we be seeing NFI congregations with women senior pastors teaching arminian doctrines?

        • Impossible to say Simon, and this is a pretty big diversion away from the subject at hand, so Ian may prune the comments.

          First, in answer to your question “Does the removal of these stated 17 now suggest flexibility over doctrine?” I would argue that doctrine was always reasonably flexible, at least outside of the complimentarian theology, and so there was a good deal of diversity between ministers on pretty much everything else. I met plenty of Arminian Elders, and the occasional Universalist in teaching ministry, so it’s not uncommon. There’s also limited agreement on sacramental matters, so there’s no standard-form for things like baptism and the Eucharist. New Frontiers was always a partnership of free churches, largely independent of each other, rather than an Ecclesial body with strong central governance, although it is moving that way. The ‘red lines’ so to speak were elsewhere theologically.

          Second, as for “Will we be seeing NFI congregations with women senior pastors…” I think it’s a safe ‘No’, though this does not preclude women having important ministry roles within the church, such as ‘Prophet’, or a worship leader. While I disagree with the position NF holds, it was my experience that women were empowered in other ways, and a critical part of church ministry, even if not technically Elders or Deacons.

          • Thanks Mat

            helpful insights

            having read this blog for 2 years – ‘pretty big diversions’ seem to get through the editor 🙂

  7. Philip. I used to be part of a local New Frontiers Church leaving in 2011. Their website at that point, included a Statement of Faith. It doesn’t now. There seems to have been some sort of change in NF since then, with a Statement of Faith having been removed.
    The Kings Church, London (AW’s home church) web site states that it is a member of the Evangelical Alliance, so they subscribe to their Statment of Faith. That accords with the local NF church I attended.
    But there is a bit more to it as, an Elder would agree to a category of Reformed Charismatic, while at the same time having NT Wright for a 3 day teaching conference. The Alpha Course is still offered.
    If you look at the Think Theology blog that Ian refers to you’ll see that Andrew Wilson believes in the continuation of charismatic gifts as well as engaging in quite wide ranging theological issues.
    Hope that helps.
    Without local knowledge, and without a Statement of Faith, if I were a a newcomer to the area, now I would be wary about attending such a church, though I could sample the preaching online, which would be a great help.
    Similarly, without local knowledge I’d be wary about attending a local CoE church. If fact I do, so don’t, even though I came to faith there. But leadership and consequently theology in content and application has changed.

      • Jamie,
        I’m not really sure what point or points you are seeking to make, or which church(es)/denominations come within your questions.
        Perhaps we’d go to Jehovah’s Witnesses Kingdom Hall, if invited, and we were an unbeliever, in fact, perhaps to any church if we had a social need – to the Saint Sociable Church at the end of the street, or to borrow contributor’s a name from AW blog site St Stuffed Shirt.
        I was an unbeliever for 47 years, and would only attend church for the usual, marriages, births and deaths, not always in that order. As I didn’t really know what Christians believed, I couldn’t see any purpose in going to church, which, in the case of the CoE, I had in mind, the middle aged, middle class and middle minded with intoned “holy” diction, and arms length. stuffines. Would I have heard the gospel if I had? I don’t know.
        Now, as a Christian, I’d hope to attend a church where I’d hear the gospel Good News of Jesus, not just good advice, good information, morals, social gospel, or “try harder”, where, at least on the face of it, we were worshipping the same triune God, gathered together, perhaps around a creed. Perhaps, I’m not the only one, as Philip intially wondered about a NF statement of faith and Simon asked about NF family of churches, being held together around theology and spirituality.
        I’d suggest that while not directly on the main point of original article, it does come within the important sphere of what Ian Paul says “shapes the preaching, teaching and general ethos of the church community” ie Christianity.

  8. I’m not equipped for the theology, but Ian, you say “on the one hand, here we find the Jesus who is radically inclusive and welcoming…. who confronts the powerful and the religiously complacent, and who brings healing and forgiveness…… On the other hand, here we also find the Jesus who does not shy away from the reality of God’s judgement.” Surely I’m not the only person who finds Jesus’ very stern words to the religious people of His day as far from inclusive and welcoming, and would put them on the other side of the fence? Speaking as a conventionally religious person (by today’s standards) I do not find the way Jesus addresses the Pharisees at all comforting.

  9. Ian,
    This is moving away from your post, but it also may indicate a movement in Andrew Wilson, or at least a broadening out of his views on Biblical Theology, which may not be fully evident in his doctorate Corinthians writings: it would be good if could review AW’s recently published popular level book, written jointly with Alastair Roberts- “Echoes of Exodus tracing the themes of Redemption through Scripture.”

  10. ‘Does God discipline those whom God loves?’
    This question can only be answered thoroughly when it is set in the context of the whole truth about sin and salvation. On some (to me essential|) aspects of that whole truth even the contributors to this excellent site are in fundamental disagreement.
    Phil Almond

  11. Hi Ian – looked forward to reading this piece but was somewhat disappointed 🙁 I was hoping you were going to answer some of the issues around ‘what’s the difference between the moment when God’s judgement falls upon us in the present, against our sinful behaviour; and those moments when God’s discipline is at work in our lives today – and how would we know the difference’?
    It seems to me that disciplining is not always a response to wrongdoing – discipling – i.e. the act of shaping, training and encouraging growth in faith and praxis must be a normative experience. But we know that God is a God of justice too and we need to believe He is capable of breaking out in judgement against his people (Annanais and Sapphira!). How can you tell when one is at work and not the other?

  12. Does God discipline those he loves?
    Here is a piece I came across today from DA Carson, with an affecting opening. While it isn’t specifically on the question of warning, it considers this aspect, that Ian quotes from AW’s thesis, from a topic sometimes taboo in some charismatic circles
    AW: “Paul believes that, as a result of gods faithfulness, grounded in the Corinthians’ participation in Christ, and through the agency of divine grace at work within them by the Spirit, his urgent warnings will somehow be efficacious: God will bring about a response of repentance and obedience within the church, and will ensure that they continue in faith rather than falling into destruction. (p 168)”

    Carson’s article is hosted on a site some may not warm to, but it is worth a read, in my estimation:


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