The Rod of God: When Love Says No
May 16, 1999
“Spare the rod and spoil the child.” It’s an old saying and like most things old, it has been neglected of late. But there is the ring of truth about it. If you spare the rod, you will indeed spoil your child. This is the clear testimony of Holy Scripture and of centuries of human experience.
To begin my sermon that way is to wade into the waters of hot controversy. Not everyone agrees with what I have just said and many people disagree vehemently (dare I say violently?). Many experts flatly declare that corporal punishment is wrong and some even say it should be outlawed. They believe it is the first step on the road to child abuse.
Well, now, before going any further, let me say that this is not a sermon about spanking. To be more precise, it is and it isn’t. I’m going to talk about spanking because I don’t think you can discuss the topic of child discipline without at least touching on corporal punishment.
This week it occurred to me that it had been a long time since I preached on child discipline. In checking my records, I discovered that the last time was December 7, 1980—when I was only two years out of seminary and pastoring Redeemer Covenant Church in Downey, California. Back then we had only one child who was 13 months old. For whatever reason I have not revisited this topic since then. During the intervening years two other boys have joined our household. I hardly qualify as an expert on childrearing and I gladly confess to my share of mistakes. Like most parents Marlene and I have learned as we have gone along and we have discovered that what works with one child doesn’t necessarily apply at all to the others. I hope I have gained some wisdom and a better perspective than I had the last time I approached this topic.
I’d like to begin by looking briefly at Hebrews 12:5-11:
“My son, do not make light of the Lord’s discipline, and do not lose heart when he rebukes you, because the Lord disciplines those he loves, and he punishes everyone he accepts as a son.” Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as sons. For what son is not disciplined by his father? If you are not disciplined (and everyone undergoes discipline), then you are illegitimate children and not true sons. Moreover, we have all had human fathers who disciplined us and we respected them for it. How much more should we submit to the Father of our spirits and live! Our fathers disciplined us for a little while as they thought best; but God disciplines us for our good, that we may share in his holiness. No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it.
This marvelous passage teaches us how God deals with his children. Along the way we learn by analogy something about the way earthly parents discipline their children. Three points deserve our attention:
Discipline is a sign of love. v. 6
Discipline is a sign of sonship. vv. 7-8
Discipline produces godly fruit. vv. 10-11
We discipline our children because we love them, because they are our children (and not someone else’s children), and because we want to produce the fruit of godly character in them. This perspective is vitally important because from a biblical point of view, discipline is far more than correction of wrongdoing. It is everything parents do to raise their children successfully. It involves years of teaching, training, direction-giving, instruction, praising, rebuking, correcting, and sometimes punishing. It requires patience, prayer, positive reinforcement, and helping children see the consequences of bad behavior. When we have done our job well, our children grow up healthy, independent, productive, positive, well-balanced, obedient, respectful, enthusiastic about life, and wholly devoted to Jesus Christ. That’s a tall order, and it won’t be realized overnight, but this is our aim as Christian parents. In a sense Hebrews 12 calls us to look to God as the model parent. We are to study God’s methods in dealing with us and then use those methods in dealing with our children. As God raises his children, so we are to raise ours. Godly parenting begins with the study of God—his character, his methods, his ways, and most of all, his Word.
With that as background, we turn now to consider biblical principles regarding raising our children for the Lord. I’m going to organize my remarks under six major headings.
Fact #1: We shy away from this topic because of cultural pressure, past mistakes, and our own personal uncertainty.
Earlier I mentioned the issue of corporal punishment. As I researched this sermon, I discovered that there is a large, well-organized, well-financed, and well-publicized antispanking movement in America. It is led by psychologists, social workers, and educational leaders who strongly oppose all forms of physical discipline of children. It has led to something called “child-centered parenting” where parents are instructed to look at their children as friends more than as children needing their direction and guidance. (See “When to Spank,” US News and World Report, April 13, 1998 for a detailed analysis of the factors that led to the antispanking movement.).
It isn’t my purpose to offer a detailed argument in favor of spanking. I would note that Focus on the Family believes there is a place for mild spanking in the discipline of children ages two to ten. I would also refer you to the policy statement by the Family Research Council called “Spare the Rod?” which offers a detailed rebuttal to the antispanking arguments.
It’s also fair to say that no one I know believes that spanking should be the major tool parents use to raise their children. If you are spanking your children every day, or almost every day, then you probably need some instruction in good childrearing methods. I urge you to contact Pastor Bob Boerman who heads the Family Ministries at Calvary. We offer numerous classes that can help you refine your parenting skills. Our position is the same as Focus on the Family: Mild spanking has a place in a child’s discipline but it should never be the main tool parents use to motivate their children to obey.
As I look back to the way I was raised, it occurs to me that either there was no antispanking movement when I was growing up or else my parents had never heard of it. I was spanked a few times (probably more than a few but I seem to have forgotten most of them) during my growing-up years. As far as I can tell, I seem to be none the worse for it. As I recall I think my Mom did most of the spanking but we always knew that if Dad got involved he was going to get his money’s worth, so to speak. In my memory my father doesn’t strike me as a mean or harsh man at all. He was a very good father who was no-nonsense when it came to raising children. You obeyed or eventually you would pay the price. That price might be exacted in a number of ways but judgment day would come sooner or later. There is ample biblical precedent for that approach to raising children.
Fact #2: Biblical discipline must reflect a proper mixture of law and grace.
Ray Stedman makes this point in his sermon called “The Disciplines of God.” He notes that God always begins with law and moves to grace. Even in the Garden of Eden, God told Adam not to eat from one particular tree. That’s law. Later would come words of grace and forgiveness. When we raise our children, we must start with law. We must give them rules and we must set limits. We must tell them what to do and what not to do. Grace must be our attitude but law must flow from our lips. If we leave our children to fend for themselves, we have abdicated our parental calling before the Lord.
Fact # 3: Biblical discipline produces the following positive results.
For parents who want God’s view of childrearing, I recommend the book of Proverbs. Over and over again Solomon says, “My son, listen to my commandments and take heed to my words.” If we would raise our children according to Proverbs, we could dispense with 99% of the secular books on childrearing.
Since this sermon is about discipline, I have chosen five passages that deal directly with this topic. They show the good things that happen when parents dare to follow God’s plan:
A. It teaches wisdom. Proverbs 29:15
“The rod of correction imparts wisdom, but a child left to himself disgraces his mother.” The “rod of correction” stands for the instrument used in discipline. It might be a belt, an actual rod, the palm of the hand, or from days gone by, a switch off a tree. In the larger context, it refers to whatever means you use to punish misbehavior, such as a time-out chair, taking away privileges, grounding a teenager, and so on. Children learn wisdom when there are consequences for disobedience. And when they “get away with murder” at home, that may be precisely what they do years later.
B. It purges evil. Proverbs 20:30
“Blows and wounds cleanse away evil, and beatings purge the inmost being.” I include this verse primarily because of the phrase “cleanse away evil.” It’s important to note that this verse is not talking about childrearing specifically. It probably has more to do with crime and punishment in ancient Israel. But the principle is the same. Effective discipline restrains evil by making the consequences so distasteful that the child wants no part of it.
C. It saves from death. Proverbs 23:13-14
“Do not withhold discipline from a child; if you punish him with the rod, he will not die. Punish him with the rod and save his soul from death.” Don’t misread verse 13. It’s not calling for beating a child unmercifully, but it does remind us that God has arranged the human anatomy so that a mild swat on the buttocks can be useful in punishing misbehavior. And our discipline—though it may seem painful at the time—can actually save a person from physical death and perhaps also from spiritual death. Better to discipline today even though your child sheds a few tears than to look back and say that you failed to give proper guidance.
D. It demonstrates love. Proverbs 13:24
“He who spares the rod hates his son, but he who loves him is careful to discipline him.” The word “careful” means “discriminating.” It implies that godly parents watch their children at all times to make sure they are on the right road in life. To do anything less means you don’t really love your child, no matter what you may say.
E. It promotes domestic peace. Proverbs 29:17
“Discipline your son, and he will give you peace; he will bring delight to your soul.” Parents who care enough to say no, who set limits and then enforce them, who reward good behavior and punish disobedience—those parents are usually blessed with happy, well-adjusted, obedient children who bring delight to their souls. And what could be better than that?
Fact #4: When we discipline, our purpose is not simply to correct wrongdoing, but to encourage wise choices in the future.
Sometimes parents act as if discipline is just about crime and punishment. But that is an extremely short-sighted view. Here’s a brief comparison of right and wrong reasons to discipline your children: 
Three Wrong Reasons
Three Right Reasons:
2. Arouse Fear
3. Seek Revenge
1. Teach right from wrong
2. Teach respect for authority
3. Establish justice
A few days ago Pastor Boerman gave me a statement regarding the Family Ministries position on the discipline of children. Here it is. Note that Bob uses the old word “chastisement,” which means the same thing as discipline:
Chastisement is biblical and should not be ignored for correcting acts of foolishness. Foolishness is defined as acts of willful disobedience. Foolishness is different from childishness. Example: Young Mary runs through the house and knocks over a lamp, breaking it. She’s young and no one had told her to not run through the house. This is childishness. If Mary had been told by her parents to not run through the house and she did it, breaking the lamp, that would be considered foolishness. The first example would require her to help clean up the mess from the broken lamp, the second would bring on discipline. Maybe chastisement, helping to pay for the lamp, etc.
Fact # 5: We are to raise our children the way God raises us – with grace, patience, individual attention, and a clear purpose.
This brings us back to Hebrews 12 with its emphasis on how God raises his children. We are to do what he does. He disciplines us to bring forth the godly fruit of holiness and righteousness. To do that, he uses hardship, trials, setbacks, sickness, pain, unanswered prayer, and all manner of difficulties that at the time seem hard to endure. Yet in the end they bring us to maturity and conform us to the image of Christ.
Last week I mentioned that as parents our goal is to move our children from 100% dependence on us to the place of independence so that when they leave the home they are able to function successfully as adults. After the third service a friend told me she had heard it said this way. Our goal is to move our children from 100% dependence on us to 100% dependence on God. That’s good, isn’t it? When we have done our job well, our children will depend on the Lord just as much as they once depended on us.
Fact # 6: The Seven Bs of good discipline
Here are seven practical guidelines that will help you discipline your children the right way.
Have fewer rules and enforce them fairly. Remember, God summarized his will in only ten commandments. Wise parents keep it simple so their children won’t forget what really matters.
Many parents have gotten into trouble because they disciplined during a moment of sudden anger. Often our temper causes us to do or say things we later regret. It is better to walk away than to discipline in anger. This is why Colossians 3:21 warns fathers not to exasperate their children. And Ephesians 4:31 tells us to put away anger, malice, wrath, clamor, bitterness, strife and rage.
Have definite standards of right and wrong. Make sure your child knows the consequences of disobedience. Before you punish, tell the child what rule he or she has broken. Otherwise, the opportunity for learning may be lost.
Don’t drag out your discipline. Deal with the problem at hand and then move on. According to Ecclesiastes 8:11, “When the sentence for a crime is not quickly carried out, the hearts of the people are filled with schemes to do wrong.”
When your children disobey, make sure you get all the facts before you do anything. Proverbs 18:17 tells us that “the first to present his case seems right, till another comes forward and questions him.” Substitute “his sister” or “his brother” for “another” and you quickly get the point. Take time to hear all sides before you render your final verdict.
This is a basic biblical principle covering all human relationships. Be merciful just as God is merciful. Don’t break the spirit of your children. Don’t beat them or abuse them. Don’t humiliate them in public or in private.
When the discipline is done, don’t hold a grudge. Do what needs to be done and then move on. Aren’t you glad God doesn’t hold grudges with us? He forgives and forgets. Ephesians 4:32 says, “Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.” Let God’s forgiveness be the standard and your discipline will lead to joy and not to heartache.
In making these suggestions, I am simply calling on parents to practice tough love. If we want to raise happy, healthy, well-adjusted kids, we must love them enough to say no, to set limits, to establish boundaries, and to take action when those limits are willfully violated.
Shaping our Children for Eternity
Let’s wrap this up with three words of application. First, a word to fathers. Get involved with your children. Don’t leave all the hard work of discipline to your wife. Make childbearing a team effort in your home. Second, a word to single parents. You carry a heavy load that most of us will never understand. I thank God for all the single parents at Calvary. We love you and we pray for you and we want to do whatever we can to help you. I urge you to get involved in our Family Ministries’ classes. Don’t give up on your children. With God’s help you can raise a happy family. Third, a word to all of us. Pray for your children and your grandchildren. Pray for the children under your care. Pray for the children you know. Pray for the children on your block and in your extended family. Our kids are under enormous pressure today. They need our prayers to make it.
Parents have an awesome responsibility. God has ordained that parents are the single greatest factor in the spiritual growth of their children. Mom, Dad, no one can take your place. The pastor can’t, the Sunday School teacher can’t, the Awana workers can’t, the Christian school teachers can’t, the Allied Force leaders can’t. God uses believing parents to shape children for eternity. Every day by our influence we are preparing our children for eternal joy or eternal woe. A child can never cease to exist because all our children will live forever somewhere.
How quickly they fly away. I have one son in college, another finishing his junior year in high school, and another finishing the eighth grade. There are no diapers in our home. The blocks and the Play-Dough have long since been put away. When I last preached on this topic, I had one son who was only 13 months old. How long ago and how far away that seems. Before we know it all three of our boys will be out on their own. The days of childrearing end almost as soon as they begin.
Someday we will all stand before the Lord to give an account of what we have done on earth. As parents we will answer for how we raised our children. In that day the Lord will not ask, “Did you know the latest theory on how to raise children?” But he will ask, “Did you train your children to love and serve me?” What answer will you give? No excuses will be accepted. 
From Littleton to Oak Park
I come now to the close of this sermon series. This is the first time I have preached on marriage and the family in the ten years I have been your pastor. I think I waited a long time because I wanted to be sure I had something worth saying. When I began this series on April 11, I did so with some hesitation, wondering how you would respond. Nine days later what happened in Littleton, Colorado changed the world. After the massacre at Columbine High School, the family has taken first place on the American agenda. From the White House to every house, people are discussing the disintegration of the family. We all know the problem, but few seem to have any answers.
A few days ago I received a message from a young man in our congregation. He wrote to compare Oak Park with Littleton and in so doing, he pointed out that similar killings have taken place for years in the inner city but we managed to ignore them. Now that white children in “safe” suburban schools are being shot, we are suddenly upset. His words were hard to read, but they are true. I liked his words so much that I sent them to a few friends. One person wrote back agreeing with his perspective and adding some important words of hope. Here is an abridged version of what she said:
Without figuring in God in our worldview, there is no avoiding the evil we face and are impotent to oppose. Often, we have even diagnosed the problems well, but collectively are too selfish to effect change for the better because the sacrifice to our personal comfort is too great.
People say, “It shouldn’t take another massacre like this to get one’s attention.” But it often does – compromising on slavery, which paved the way to the Civil War, tolerating the AIDS epidemic, putting up with dictatorial regimes, ignoring the budding “Storm troopers” in Germany, the gay movement, rise of porn, rise of pedophilia, abortion. A pretty depressing pattern.
However, there’s a lightning bolt from above. Christians are uniquely positioned to bless our society even though many today will not see it that way. Christianity offers the best understanding and logic to analyze and diagnose our society’s ills, (the propensity towards evil, sin nature or whatever name we choose to call it) but better than that, it can offer healthy answers. Though our society may continue to reject our message, we must continue to offer God’s answers, in swallowable sizes, bite by bite – recognizing the obstacles we face but trusting in God to direct.
History teaches us that individual Christians have changed the world through obedience to Christ (ending slavery, sponsoring child labor laws, building orphanages and hospitals, establishing police forces, humanizing the treatment of women, educating women, stopping infanticide, the binding of feet in China, bride burning, and the offering of young girls as human sacrifices in India, establishing representative government, improving economic conditions of primitive peoples, to name a few). The challenge really is to the Church, and ultimately, to us as individuals.
As a people we typically need to hurt a lot before we are willing to fix anything. Our tolerance for evil is far too high! However, we have a lot of hope in the analogy Jesus used in calling his people “salt” (Matthew 5:13). Salt is never the main ingredient in a recipe, but its presence is all pervasive! We need not be discouraged in well-doing no matter how small.
I have one little P.S. to what she wrote. In the 21st century Christian families will be more important than ever because Littleton is not the end. First there was Paducah, then Pearl, then that town in Oregon, and now Littleton. But the end is not yet. As our society disintegrates, we can expect more chaos. I wish it were not so, but we will see more heartbreak in the future. Against that backdrop Christians have an enormous open door into our culture. If we can create a community of families where husbands and wives love each other and stay together for the long haul, if we can build families where the father is the spiritual leader and the mother truly loves her husband and her children, and the children love and respect their parents, if we can do that, it will be like a beacon of light in the prevailing darkness. People will come running to discover our secret. When they do, we will point them to Jesus. In the years to come our families may become our ultimate apologetic. The world can answer our arguments, but it cannot answer a happy Christian home.
And to make that kind of difference we all need Jesus, don’t we? There can be no Christian family without Christ as the true head of the home. And to be head of the home, he must be resident in every heart. Yesterday I met a woman who spoke with love and admiration for her brother. “He is such a fine man,” she said. “I pray for him to be saved. He’s so good in so many ways but he needs to be born again.” All he needs is Jesus.
That is where this sermon and this series will end. We all need Jesus and we need him more than we know. Without him we are truly lost in this life and in the life to come. But with him we can build strong Christian families that will stand during all the storms of life. If you want heaven to help your home, you need Jesus in your heart. Trust in him. Make him your Lord and Savior. I urge you to open your heart and invite him to come in. May God help you to do it. Your life and your family will never be the same.
1. The comparison comes from the Ray Stedman sermon mentioned above.
2. Many of the thoughts in this section come from a sermon by Carl Haak, “The Duties of Parents.”