Does God Punish Christians?

Sharon Church, Scripture, Theology 8 Comments

Today I want to know your thoughts on something, because I have a question that I am not entirely sure I know how to answer. This morning I was reading through Ezekiel (and fyi, if you ever want a light, encouraging read, Ezekiel is not it), and if you’re not familiar with the book, it is basically a long string of severe judgments against Israel’s unfaithfulness. And I mean severe–it almost hurts me to read it. Over and over again God condemns their unfaithfulness and metes out terrible punishments for their actions. If you want a picture of God’s wrath, this is it–it’s seriously frightening.

But what I found to be interesting about this book is the way in which God concludes His descriptions of these awful judgments. He will describe these gruesome ways in which Israelites will suffer and die, and then He will say, “Then they will know that I am the LORD.”

I find this statement to be quite baffling. Israel is God’s chosen people, so they are the ones through whom God has promised to to bless the world. With that in mind, one would assume that the world will know God is Lord when He causes the Israelites to thrive, not suffer and die. After all, israel lived during a time when a deity’s power was judged by a nation’s prosperity, so if anything, Israel’s suffering would seem to indicate to the world around them that their God was not powerful enough to help them, or that they had no god at all. This statement that the world “would know He is Lord” by Israel’s hardship seems counter-intuitive.

What I think this statement is getting at is that the world will know God is Lord by his justice. God will not sit idly by and let His own people defile His temple and desecrate His name. Oh no, He will be swift to defend His glory. Any nation that crosses God will inevitably lose, and it is for that reasons that, through the punishment of Israel, we know He is truly Lord.

But here’s the question I am left wondering–would God ever do this to the Church? If God would punish Israel, His chosen people, so severely, and we are the New Israel, could a similar forsaking happen to us if the Church were to engage in widespread unfaithfulness? The book of Ezekiel is not written to individuals, but to a group of people, so instead of reading it as warnings against individuals, it seems that in order to be faithful to the context, we must read it as a warning directed agains a group, and more specifically, God’s chosen group, which in today’s context would be the Church.

There are several issues that make this question difficult to answer. The first is distinguishing between the Old Testament and the New Testament withouth making the Old Testament irrelevant. On the one hand, we are the new Israel, so we are the continuation of the promises God made to Abraham. On the other hand, the way God talks about “punishment” in the Old Testament and the New can be very different. In the OT, punishment almost exclusively refers to temporal punishment; in the NT, punishment almost exclusively refers to eternal punishment. What makes this distinction important is Christ–as Christians, Jesus has already suffered our punishment, so for God to punish us even more would indicate that Christ’s sacrifice is somehow incomplete. For this reason the NT speaks of “discipline” for Christians, but not punishment. And with that in mind it would be theologically problematic to read this passage as a warning against God “punishing” the Church, as opposed to disciplining the Church.

A second difficulty in interpreting this passage is how the Church’s identity as the Body of Christ plays in. On the one hand, the Church is composed of millions of fallen individuals, so churches make mistakes all the time that warrant discipline. But on the other hand we must be wary of referring to the Church as being itself fallen. The Body of Christ is not fallen, though members of the Body are. It would therefore seem possible to read this passage as a judgment against individual members of the Church, as opposed to the Church as a whole, unfortunately that is not the context of the passage. It is spreaking to a group, God’s chosen people–they are collectively responsible. To read this passage individualistically would more likely be a reflection of the fact that we don’t understand the concept of corporate sin than it would be an accurate interpretation of the Scripture.

So I am left wondering–how are we to read Ezekiel, and what implications does it have for the Church? I look at the Church in Europe and think that is a good example of what happens when we are unfaithful to God–perhaps God does not smite us, but He takes away our power and effectiveness. But even that conclusion seems to undermine God’s promise to work through the Church as one of His primary means of grace in the world. Then again, in the interest of defending His character, God must show the world that He will impart justice if the Church is doing injustice. Perhaps by severely disciplining the Church when we go astray, God will be declaring to the world that He truly is the Lord.

No matter how we read this passage, I think it serves as some sort of warning for us all, but the question is what kind of warning. Does wrath await the Church that forsakes God, or merely discipline? Would God nearly destroy the Church that is unfaithful for the sake of defending His justice, or do churches naturally die when they stop preaching the Gospel, so God’s wrath is unnecessary? How are we to read this passage in a way that is both faithful to its context and to ours? I am not entirely sure, so I would love to hear your thoughts…

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Comments 8

  1. Chris Pappa

    The problems you bring up are all legitimate, so they warrant no review from me. But since you asked, here’s my response…

    I know of no passage in the New Testament that declares God’s wrath against the church. There is, as you mentioned, discipline, but this most naturally means a God-prescribed pain FOR OUR GOOD. Punishment traditionally does not desire anything remedial. So if we are to say that God punishes his church (or can punish it), we must be willing to admit that God it doing something to the church that does not have her good in mind, but is merely an exercise of judgment.

    This cannot be. It cannot be because “the church” is defined as those among whom God’s spirit dwells. God could remove His spirit from Israel; He cannot, by definition, revoke His spirit from the church. The unity established between God and his church is of the most unbreakable nature possible–hence why marriage, God’s symbol for this unity, ought under no human circumstance to be broken.

    Simply put, God cannot punish the church because the church is–in a very real sense–IN CHRIST, and His punishment (and ours, in Him) has already been paid in full.

    This, however, does not mean that God will not be harsh in his discipline: He often is. Nor does it mean that He will always sheild us from the fruits of our errors, as if I will somehow not go to prison if I rob the local bank. But it does grant us the assurance that God will not choose the church for a special display of vengeance. The church’s just legal punishment, as Jesus himself declared, “is finished.”

  2. Sharon Hodde

    How, then, do you think we should we read this passage in a way that is relevant to today? Is it exclusively referring to Jews who deny Christ? Or does it have relevance for Christians as well?

  3. Jenn Pappa

    So if what Chris just said is true (which I think it is) then Ezekial is pointing to the amazing power that Jesus had on the cross… he took on all that judgement, condemnation, and punishment for us all.. this is what we deserve, but Christ has paid that for us. How incredible! How relieving! How wonderful! (feel free to break into an old hymn at any moment cause I just did… “oh how wonderful.. oh how…”)

    And how easy we forget what we deserve and what we have been saved from.

  4. Clifford

    Can’t punishment serve as a form of discipline? Even in the Old Testament, when God meted out his punishment it was still, in one sense, for the good of Israel – if for nothing else for future generations, giving folks something to look back to so they wouldn’t make the same mistakes as their forefathers (though they did anyway – but how often do we not repeat our same mistakes until finally something clicks and we’re able to move on?).

    Plus, times of judgment polarize folks of faith – they either abandon it altogether for survival or they see it for what it is and truly appreciata and adhere to it. In that vein, it also seems to me it can be viewed as a reflection of sanctification, but of a nation instead of an individual, purifying the people, always maintaining a remnant.

    For modern readers it serves as a warning; Jesus is addressing churches in Revelation 2 and unless they repent he threatens to judge them. I think it’s relevant to us in making our calling and election sure as believers, and together of course we form the church, so in a sense, if punishment serves as discipline, he could punish the church. I feel like I’m about to get in over my head here (if I haven’t already) so I’ll stop there.

  5. Chris Pappa

    As per the request of the master blogger, I return to answer her follow-up question. However, I find that my wife has succinctly stated what I would have: Indeed, the wrath and punishment found for Israel in Ezekiel has been satisfied already.

    And, as I believe Clifford is attempting to point out, this does not keep us from harsh discipline or examples of wrath to avoid. The example of Revelation 2 is, indeed, startling; not having the text readily available nor having studied it at any considerable depth, I cannot comment.

    “Since we have been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God” -Romans 5:9

  6. Jess

    Personally, I have no quibbles with the comments that have been posted so far. I would like to say, however, that it seems like we are all coming at this question from a particular theological bent that might be influencing our opinions.

    The relationship between Israel and the church has been a point of debate for 2,000 years now. Until the Protestant Reformation, most Biblical scholars, many of whom were influenced by an anti-Semitic worldview, assumed that the Church had essentially replaced Israel. They believed that all the promises made to Israel would now be fulfilled in the church, and that all the warnings made to Israel could also be made to the church.

    Later, however, that point of view was challenged as two competing schools of theology arose: covenant theology and dispensationalist theology.

    Most of us would probably consider ourselves covenant theologists. A major emphasis of covenant theology is the continuity between the OT and the NT – particularly the continuity between the nation of Israel and the church of Christ. Covenant theologists tend to agree that the church is the “modern” Israel, and that passages in Scripture focused on Israel can be applied to the church. Covenant theology allows for a more allegorical reading of the OT, where modern Christians relate their own experiences, and the experiences of the church, to those of Israel.

    However, dispensationalism represents a different interpretation of Scripture. Dispensationalists see different “arrangements” (or dispensations, if you will) of God’s interactions with the Jews of Israel and the believers of the NT church. According to dispensationalism, God has a specific plan for dealing with the nation of Israel, and that is fundamentally different than his plan for dealing with the NT church. Many dispensationalists look to the latter chapters of Romans (particularly 9-11) to explain their point of view, as well as various verses in Revelations.

    A dispensationalist would not really understand this latest posting because a dispensationalist would argue that one cannot make a clear-cut connection between Israel and the church.

    To be quite honest, I’m not even really sure what I think of all this or if it is in any way profitable to the discussion we’ve been having. Really, I suppose this post just serves as a reminder that we do not have clear-cut answers to this question (like so many others!), and that we simply must continue to struggle with them, as we all are obviously doing.

  7. Anonymous

    The passages in Ezekiel that describe the judgements against the nation Israel are in perfect harmony with the promise of God in Romans 8:28
    “And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose.”

    Those individuals in the nation of Israel who were genuinely believing in the salvation of God through Christ, did not recieve eternal judgement. Those who denied Him recieved judgement in life AND in death.

    The same applies for the Church today.

    In regards to God’s discipline being harsh, consider again the Holiness of God and your own sin that merits you eternal condemnation. My great God is only as firm as necessary to bring the correct result from His discipline. To call Him harsh is to call into question His perfect judgement. I thank God for His gentleness in the light of our sin!

  8. Anonymous

    I’ve been fascinated by Ezekiel since I was twelve. I’m no theologian, so perhaps my view is too simplistic, but I read Ezekiel as a promise of forgiveness, resurrection, and restoration. In order to help us appreciate the beauty of that promise, Ezekiel contrasts it with the ravages of sin. The book is a graphic picture of the power, beauty, and glory of Christ.

    As to the question of our suffering correction, if we are not disciplined by the Lord for sin, then we do not belong to Him. The Lord does indeed chasten and correct His body, and His correction does indeed hurt! We must remember that Christ Jesus is not only our Savior but also our Lord and King. As such, He has a right and a responsibility to make sure His members are in alignment with the Father’s will. From a mortal standpoint, it seems crazy to be thankful for such painful correction; however, the Lord must keep us in the Father’s will, for not everyone who calls Him Lord will enter heaven, but those who do the Father’s will. His purposes are good, just, and loving: His glory and our eternal communion with Him.

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