God’s Sanctifying Discipline:
A Lenten Homily on Hebrews 12:7-15
by John Drury
“God disciplines us for our good, that we may share in his holiness” (Heb. 12:10b)
Between the two sons in my family, I certainly received the lion’s share of disciple. I was a strong-willed, selfish, ornery, and rebellious little kid. So my constant difficulty resulted in constant spankings. I remember one afternoon when my father gave me one of these spankings. After he finished, I turned around and said, “That didn’t hurt.” I don’t remember any else that happened that day.
James Dobson’s book The Strong-Willed Child, which my parents had the insight to buy when I was but a year and half old, teaches parents to break a child’s will but not his or her spirit. My father was forced to take this strategy with me. And our heavenly father has also been put in a position to use this method with humanity. God breaks our wills without breaking out spirits. And just like my father’s discipline was done for my own good, so too God’s discipline is for our good. It is His sanctifying discipline.
I. In what form does this discipline which leads to holiness come? The Scriptures teach that the children of God will almost inevitably experience suffering. It is these times of suffering in our lives which serve as opportunities for sanctifying grace. This may come as a surprise, for we tend to ask God to free us from suffering. But this very request is a small glimpse of what we learn through suffering: to rely on God as our father.
The suffering we experience must not be too quickly associated with punishment in the judicial sense. Rather, God disciplines us as sons (Heb. 12:7). We can associate our sufferings with God’s sanctifying grace without having to search for some hidden sin which brought it upon us. God wants us to treat our hardships as opportunities to grow in his likeness. “For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all” (II Cor. 4:17). The Scriptures draw a direct link between suffering and sanctification.
Therefore, in the same way that we are to be holy as our heavenly Father is holy, we are also to suffer as the Son suffered. “Therefore, since Christ suffered in his body, arm yourselves also with the same attitude, because he who has suffered in his body is done with sin. As a result, he does not live the rest of his earthly life for evil human desires, but rather for the will of God” (I Pet. 4:1-2). Suffering gives us the opportunity to identify with Christ’s sufferings. And since during a time of suffering we find that our will is not being done, we can learn to say with Christ “not my will, but Yours be done.”
II. Having understood the role of suffering in God’s sanctifying grace, we can now ask, “What exactly is sanctification?” Hebrews 12:10 puts it quite simply: sharing in God’s holiness. God is holy, and we have the opportunity to participate in His holiness. The holiness in which we will grow through suffering is derived from God Himself. This is what it means when Peter says we “participate in the divine nature” (I Pet. 1:4). We actually become a part of the life of God, who dwells in us through the Holy Spirit.
Sanctification is participation in the family of God. Through suffering we become closer to God and grow in His likeness. We are sons of God and brothers of Christ. Earlier in Hebrews the author writes, “Both the one who makes men holy and those who are made holy are of the same family. So Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers.” We are part of God’s holy family.
III. It is for the sake of this family that we are being sanctified in the first place. This is the answer to a question I often find myself asking: “What is the purpose of sanctification?” If we are saved by grace and have a right relationship with God, why become holy? The author of Hebrews is explicit on this point. We are becoming holy for the sake of the body of Christ. We are to provide a safe environment for the weaker members -- “make level paths . . . so that that the lame may not be disabled, but rather healed” (Heb. 12:13). We are to unify the members of the body -- “make every effort to live in peace with all men” (Heb. 12:14). We are to protect the body from impurity -- “see to it . . . that no bitter root grows up to cause trouble and defile many” (Heb. 12:15). Holiness is not self-centered perfectionism, but an others-centered gift of love. God loves humanity, and by “participating in the divine nature” we too can love others.
This small passage about God’s discipline answers some very large questions about our Christian life. What is suffering? It is our opportunity to grow in holiness. What is sanctification? It is participating in God’s own holiness, joining His holy family. What is sanctification for? It is for the sake of God’s family -- providing, unifying, and purifying the body of Christ.
What are we to do then? We must first humbly accept God’s discipline in whatever form it comes, whether it be through suffering or our own self-denial and discipline. We must also remember that our holiness comes from God Himself, learning to live for His will and not our own. Finally, we are obligated to pour out for others by providing for those weaker than ourselves, uniting the body of Christ by facilitating reconciliation, and protecting the Church from impurity by righteous living and accountability. By living these truths we will be fulfilling our call to “share in God’s holiness.”