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The Good of Discipline

Series: Better: A Study of the Christian Life in Hebrews

Sermon by Ligon Duncan on Sep 1, 2013

Hebrews 12:1-11

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Keep your eyes on Jesus and run the race - that's sort of the motto of the Christian life. And you’ll notice in each of the verses the three directives - lay aside, run, and consider Him. Those are the three directives in each of the three first verses of the chapter and they outline for us three important parts of living the Christian life. Laying aside the hindrances of sin and other things, obstacles, especially in us, that keep us from living the Christian life. Running with endurance; not growing weary. Looking to Jesus who endured the cross; considering Him as He faced hostility from sinners and following after Him. And so our theme last week was - to live the Christian life you had to fix your eyes on Jesus and prepare to run a distance race.

Well this whole chapter is about the Christian life and about sanctification, and in particular in the passage we're going to study today, we're going to see the author of Hebrews elaborate on this point of how to live the Christian life. So for instance, in verses 4 to 6, we're going to encounter an exhortation about what it's going to take to live the Christian life. As the first three verses were an encouragement, verses 4 to 6 provide a sobering exhortation. And then, verses 7 to 11, follow up with a word about how we are to understand who and what is happening in the discipline that we experience in the Christian life. So be on the lookout for those things as we work through the passage today. Let's look to God in prayer and ask for His help and blessing as we prepare to read it.

Heavenly Father, this is Your Word so we pray that You would open our eyes to behold wonderful things in it. We ask this in Jesus' name, amen.

This is God's Word. Hear it:

“Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.

Consider him who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted. In your struggle against sin you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood. And have you forgotten the exhortation that addresses you as sons?

‘My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord, nor be weary when reproved by him. For the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives.’

It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you as sons. For what son is there whom his father does not discipline? If you are left without discipline, in which all have participated, then you are illegitimate children and not sons. Besides this, we have had earthly fathers who disciplined us and we respected them. Shall we not much more be subject to the Father of spirits and live? For they disciplined us for a short time as it sounded best to them, but he disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness. For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.”

Amen, and thus ends this reading of God's holy, inspired, and inerrant Word. May He write its eternal truth upon all our hearts.

To live the Christian life you need to understand how the highest privilege and the deepest depths and the hardest discipline go together. Those things don't seem like the go together - the highest privilege in the Christian life with the hardest discipline and the deepest depths of struggle with your own inward trials? Those things don't seem like they go together, but they do. It's interesting, this whole passage is about the Christian life and it highlights all three of those things. It highlights the glorious privilege of sonship. J. I. Packer in his book, Knowing God, says, “The privilege of adoption is the highest privilege of the Christian life,” and this passage is filled with truth about the Biblical doctrine of adoption and the Christian experience of being a son of God. You do understand that, sisters in the congregation, you are all sons. Every man in Christ here today is a bride, and every woman in Christ here today is a son. What that means is you are a full co-inheritor of your Father's estate, and that glorious doctrine of adoption is all over this passage about the Christian life. But that privilege is set in the context of deep depths and hard discipline, wherein God brings providences into our experience that test and try us and grow us in grace. And those things are not contradictions; they actually belong together, although it's hard for us to see that sometimes and it's certainly hard for us to feel that sometimes in the Christian life.

I. An Encouragement: In order to endure, look to Jesus who has already endured for you

So with that as our one theme today, that, to live the Christian life we need to understand that the highest privilege and the deepest depths and the hardest discipline all go together, I want us to see three things this morning. And the first thing is this. Look at verses 1 to 3. Let's go back and briefly recount that passage that's meant for our encouragement in sanctification. The author of Hebrews there teaches us that to live the Christian life we need to fix our eyes on Jesus and prepare for the long run. Now what does he mean, “fix our eyes on Jesus”? We don't have time to say all that he means, but let me just highlight from the passage the things that he wants us especially to see when we see Jesus. Look at verse 1. We’re going to “run with endurance a race that is set before us.” Now look what he asks us to see in Jesus - “looking to Jesus who endured the cross.” So you’re called to run an endurance race so who are you to look at? You’re to look at Jesus who endured the cross! You’re going to endure a race; He endured the cross. He's your encouragement. He's your example of endurance. You can look at the author and finisher of your faith and say, “I've been called to endure, but He endured before me and He endured for me the cross.”

Then look at what he says - “despising the shame.” Jesus endured shame on our behalf, and in the Christian life, from time to time, out of fidelity to Christ we must endure shame - when people publically humiliate us because of our commitment to the Lord Jesus Christ, to the Gospel, to the Word of God, to the truth of the faith. Verse 3 - “Consider him who endured from sinners hostility against himself.” So again, as Jesus endured hostility, we look to Him because He helps us know how to navigate the hostility that we experience. And then the final verses - “so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted.” You see what the author is saying? If you want to endure the Christian life in the long run that it is, you must look to Jesus who has already endured for you.

This is so kind of the author to tell us upfront that the Christian life is not going to be a cakewalk. He's not saying, “It's going to be easy-peasy. You’re going to go from strength to strength! You’re going to win every battle. There are going to be no trials.” No, it is going to be a long, hard race and you must approach it and prepare for it and be prepared for it like an Olympic athlete prepares for the events to come, like an ultra-marathon runner prepares for the race ahead. And that's so kind of him to give us that kind of a cold shower and tell us at the very outset, “The Christian life's not going to be easy.” Wouldn't it have been horrible for some author of Scripture to say, “Oh, it's all going to be easy,” and then you get thirty years into it and you ask, “What happened? I thought this was going to be easy!” It's very kind of him to give us some real politic, to give us some reality therapy, to tell us exactly how it's going to be ahead of time, not to discourage us but for the exact opposite reason - for the purpose of encouraging us. When the race is long and hard, then you say, “This is exactly what he told me it would be like.”

II. An Exhortation about Killing Sin and Encountering Discipline

Second, look at verses 4 to 6. We see here, moving from that word of encouragement, now an exhortation about killing sin and encountering discipline. And we learn from these verses that to live the Christian life we must prepare for killing sin and bearing discipline. Listen to his words. “In your struggle against sin, you have not resisted to the point of shedding your blood.” Now that is one of the most bracing sentences in all of the New Testament. Can you imagine going into a friend's office, you’re looking for a little encouragement because you've been struggling with a particular sin, and your friend says, “Well, you haven't died trying to kill that sin yet, have you?” And you think to yourself, “Gee, that was encouraging!” But it actually is. Notice how the question is phrased. The question is phrased so that nobody can answer the question, “Yes.” “You haven't resisted that sin to the point of death yet, have you?” Nobody can answer that who is not already dead. So anybody still alive can't answer the question, “Yes.” You have to answer the question, “No. Well, I guess I haven't died fighting that sin.” And that's the whole point, you see. The point is, the Christian life and the fight of faith is something that's not going to be over until you take your last breath. Don't be surprised by that, don't be discouraged by that, but be prepared for that fight of faith, for that work of mortification and of killing sin and of encountering discipline.

Notice what he goes on to say. “Have you forgotten the exhortation that addresses you as sons? ‘My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord, nor be weary when reproved by him. For the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives.’” You see what the author is saying at that point? He's telling us that although often we are discouraged in our experience of God's providential discipline, that isn't meant to discourage us; it proves that we are His sons. It proves that we are His legitimate children. It is the method of His love.

A Plea for Sanctification
Many of you know John Newton's poem, “These Inward Trials.” It's Newton's recounting of his prayer for God to sanctify him and what happened in answer to that prayer. This is what Newton says: “I asked the Lord that I might grow, in faith, in love, in every grace;” - that's a great Christian prayer for sanctification. “That I might more of His salvation know, and seek more earnestly His face.” That's another good Christian prayer for sanctification, that you might know the fullness of God's salvation and that you might seek His face. That's the language of, “Be thou my vision, O Lord of my heart. I want You to be my heartbeat, Lord. I want You to be the one that I treasure.”

And then this is what Newton tells us that he was expecting: “I hoped that in some favored hour, at once He’d answer my request;” - instant sanctification. You’re just going to give me faith, hope and love, You’re going to give me more fullness of Your salvation, You’re going to show me Your face, I'm going to love You more, Lord, I'm going to grow leaps and bounds, I'd just like You to give it to me right now.

“And by His loves constraining power, subdue my sins, and give me rest.” He wanted to see sin killed, sin defeated, and rest from this battle against sin.

Now here's how he goes on in the poem:

“Instead of this He made me feel, the hidden evils of my heart; and let the angry powers of hell, assault my soul in every part. Yes more, with His own hand He seemed, intent to aggravate my woe; He crossed all the fair designs I schemed, blasted my gourds, and laid me low. ‘Lord, why is this?’ I tremblingly cried, ‘Will You pursue Your worm to death?’ ‘Tis in this way,’ the Lord replied, ‘I answer prayer for grace and faith. These inward trials I employ, from self and pride to set you free; and break your schemes of earthly joy, that you may seek your all in Me.’”

That's how the Lord works and that's exactly what the author of Hebrews is talking about. And you know this to be true in your own experience.

A Picture of Sanctification
You know, we just announced this morning that dear Madeline Clark went home to be with the Lord yesterday. Nine long years we've watched Madeline struggle with cancer and the side effects of it. And we've watched Vic put on a clinic on how a husband takes care of his wife. We really have. It's been a privilege to see that. And I’ll bet many of you, just like I have, have thought in your hearts, more than once, “Lord, why Vic and why Madeline?” You know, if there's anybody in this congregation that didn't need that much sanctification it's Vic and Madeline - the joy that woman brought to this place, the humble, steady, servant heart of Vic Clark. No, I think there are a lot of us in line before them that needed God's sanctifying work, at least by our own estimations. And that is how God chose to work. It's mysterious, isn't it? But you know, I could go through every pew in this room today and I could tell that same story over again with just different circumstances because God deals with us in those deep depths with discipline that sometimes seems hard. And the author of Hebrews is saying, “When you’re there and you’re discouraged, remember that what God is actually doing when that happens in your life if He is proving that He loves you and He is proving to you that you are His child.” You see, to live the Christian life you have to understand how the highest privileges and the depths and the hardest discipline go together, because they do.

III. To live the Christian Life, you have to know the Who and the Why of Discipline

Now that leads us to the third part. Look with me at verses 7 to 11. Because to live the Christian life you also have to know the who and the why of discipline. To live the Christian life, you have to know the who and the why of discipline. Verses 7 to 11 basically focus your attention on who it is that is dispensing the discipline and what His purposes are. And what does it say? Well look at verse 7. “God is treating you as sons” in the discipline that you endure. God is treating you as sons. Who is it that is dispensing the discipline? Your heavenly Father, who loves you. And my friends, if you won't receive what you are experiencing as from His hand, you’ll be bitter, because I know some of the things that you have experienced and are experiencing. If you can't receive those as coming from the hand of your heavenly Father, you will be bitter. Samuel Rutherford used to say that “faith learns to kiss the hand of her striking Lord.” In other words, the very hand that spanks you is the hand that loves you and you learn to kiss that hand because you know that the Lord's purposes for you are good.

Now that's easy for me to say, but it can take weeks and months and years through the hardest struggles of our life, to really come to believe and appreciate that what we are receiving in our lives comes from our heavenly Father who loves us. But that is a fight of faith that is worth the effort, my friends. It may be one of the greatest things you ever do. Just like forgiving someone may be one of the greatest acts of heroism that you ever fulfill in the Christian life, so also believing that the hard discipline of your life comes from the hand of your loving heavenly Father. It may be one of the greatest acts of faith that you ever do.

Discipline to what end?
But what's He up to? Well isn't it interesting how many things we are told in Hebrews 12 verses 7 to 11 that He's up to. First of all, He's up to your endurance. It is for discipline that you have to endure. In other words, the discipline that God is bringing into your life is designed so that you will endure to the end. Furthermore, it “yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness” - verse 11. It's designed to grow us in righteousness. Verse 10 - it's “for our good.” It proves that we are sons. But most of all, look at the very end of verse 10. He disciplines us for our good - why? “That we may share His holiness.” Isn't that glorious? That God's discipline is so that we might share His character. He's ready to share who He is and what He is like with us, but it's going to require discipline for us to share in that. Isn't that a contrast to Genesis 3? The serpent says to Eve, “If you want to be like God, you've got to disobey Him.” The Father says, “If you want to be like Me, you’re going to have to be holy, and I'm going to have to discipline you in order that you would be like Me.”

Now my friends, those three things go together in the Christian life - our highest privilege, God's adoption of us as His sons, the deepest depths of our inward trials, and the hardest discipline of His providence. They all go together; they’re not contradictory. We need to know that to live the Christian life. Let's pray.

Heavenly Father, work the truth of this passage into our hearts so that we receive it by faith and are enabled to live this life fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, who has already endured the cross for us and who now is seated at the right hand of glory on high, ever living to intercede so that we too might endure. We ask these things in Jesus' name, amen.

Now if you’d take your hymnals in hand and turn with me to number 575, our VBS hymn this year was, “Soldiers of Christ Arise,” and this hymn catches beautifully the emphases of this passage. Let's sing it to God's praise.

Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

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