Tried With Fire: Chastening

All who are genuinely God’s sons can expect to receive chastening.

The courtroom metaphor provides a powerful and glorious picture of the salvation God applies to His people. Magnificent as it is, however, it is only one of several metaphors, and it must not be pressed beyond its limits. How might that happen? I can give an example.

 

We must beware of mixing the metaphors that God uses to teach us about salvation. For example, the work of salvation can be viewed under the metaphor of a courtroom in which the guilty sinner stands before God as judge. In this metaphor, God charges the believing sinner’s guilt to Christ, who bears its penalty on His cross. God also credits the righteousness of Christ to the believing sinner and, on the basis of this imputed righteousness, justifies the sinner (declares the sinner to be righteous). The justified sinner is now free of offense toward God and cannot possibly come under God’s judicial wrath. All sins—past, present, and future—have been fully forgiven. The believing sinner is now accepted in the Beloved (Eph 1:6) and seated in heavenly places with Christ Jesus (Eph 2:6).

The courtroom metaphor provides a powerful and glorious picture of the salvation God applies to His people. Magnificent as it is, however, it is only one of several metaphors, and it must not be pressed beyond its limits. How might that happen? I can give an example.

Years ago a man began to visit the church that I was pastoring. He began privately to teach our people that since believers are accepted in the Beloved, God could never be displeased with them in any sense. Since every sin had already been dealt with at the cross, believers never needed to take any other action when they sinned. Specifically, they did not need to confess the sins that they committed during their day-by-day walk. This would-be teacher claimed that all “confession” passages (like 1 Jn 1:9) must be addressing unbelievers. Furthermore, God could never chasten believers for sins committed after salvation. These sins were already forgiven, chastening was a form of punishment, and God would never punish believers whose sins were already forgiven.

I asked this self-appointed teacher to explain 1 Corinthians 11, where Paul tells believers to examine themselves so as to avoid judgment. In that passage Paul specifies that “for this cause many are weak and sickly among you, and many sleep” (1 Cor 11:20). I’ll never forget how the visiting teacher responded that the weakness and sickness were natural consequences of the poor diet in which the Corinthians were indulging, and that their sleep occurred when, overcome by lethargy after their heavy meal, they dozed off during the sermon.

This unnatural exegesis resulted from trying to overlap the courtroom metaphor onto the doctrine of chastening. The problem is that chastening has no place in the courtroom, which is about guilt or innocence, condemnation or justification. Instead, the notion of chastening arises from an entirely different trope: the metaphor of a family relationship between father and child. Fathers chasten their children, not to condemn them for their guilt, but to correct them so that they do not continue to repeat the same errors.

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