Church Discipline and the Perseverance of the Saints
One of the most precious promises in the Bible comes in John 10:27–28, where Jesus says, “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand.” Our Good Shepherd promises us that we will never perish, for we belong to him, and that no one can snatch us out of his hand.
Those for whom Christ laid down his life can never fall away, for we are protected and preserved for all eternity in the omnipotent hand of Christ.
Why do We Need Church Discipline?
But if this promise is true (and it is), then why do we need to practice church discipline? That is, if someone who is once saved is always saved, then why do we need to trouble ourselves with the hard work of rooting out sin from our own lives and, more awkwardly, from other people’s lives?
To answer this question, let’s first talk about what church discipline is (and what it is not), and then we can talk about how church discipline relates to our perseverance.
What is Church Discipline?
When we talk about church discipline, it’s important that we understand the way that the word discipline relates to disciple. To make disciples of all nations, we must teach (that is, discipline) people to obey everything that Christ commanded (Matt. 28:16–20). We work proactively to build disciples and reactively to correct disciples in humble reliance upon the Holy Spirit as we all seek to grow in our knowledge of and obedience to Christ.
From this perspective, every Christian is “under church discipline.”
The Goal of Church Discipline
What's so important to understand in all this is that church discipline is not punishment. Instead, the entire goal of church discipline (whether proactive or reactive) is to help sheep listen better to the voice of our Good Shepherd, Jesus Christ. If someone refuses to listen to the voice of the Good Shepherd, following him in repentance, faith, and obedience, then they are not Christ’s sheep (John 10:27).
But if someone truly is Christ's sheep, then they will ultimately listen to their Shepherd. This may take time, for sheep frequently wander—sometimes without realizing that they are wandering, and sometimes through increasing rebellion that will make their eventual return all the more painful. Nevertheless, at the end of the day, Christ's sheep will return to his voice.
How We Do Church Discipline
There are two important implications from this.
First, only God's word can bring about growth. While other books, resources, disciplines, processes, and tools may be helpful in the overall process of disciple-making, only the Shepherd can lead his sheep, and he leads them by his voice. Our job is not to manipulate, browbeat, or flatter Christ's sheep, but simply to declare and minister Christ's word to them.
Second, because God's word does bring about growth, we can disciple people with confidence. Human hearts are too hard for even the most skilled shepherd to change them, but that isn't our job. Instead, our job is to give people Christ's word and depend upon Christ's Spirit to apply the word as Jesus shepherds his people. We can discipline with confidence in what God will do, not what we will do.
Church Discipline Makes Perseverance Possible
Church discipline, then, is the process Jesus uses to shepherd his church all the way to the end. Because we like sheep so frequently go astray, we need both proactive and reactive church discipline to bring us back again and again to the voice of our Great Shepherd. The doctrine of the perseverance of the saints (that true believers can never be snatched out of the hand of Christ; John 10:28) does not conflict with the practice of church discipline; rather, church discipline is the primary tool Jesus uses to enable the saints to persevere.
When we wander like sheep away from our Shepherd, we need others to point that out to us. By God’s grace, let us not respond with defensiveness or anger, but with sorrowful repentance and joyful faith as someone reminds us to keep listening to the voice of our Good Shepherd as he shepherds us into his eternal kingdom.