Do not withhold discipline from a child;
if you strike him with a rod, he will not die.
If you strike him with the rod,
you will save his soul from Sheol.
Parenting is exhausting. As a young parent I used to think it was possible to be consistent. No more! Parenting is also one of the most sensitive and controversial topics of our time. For many, parenting is about technique, finding the right method to get the desired outcome. Others cringe at the thought of rules and standards as integral to parenting. The Bible teaches that the value of discipline lies in its power to rescue, to work backwards from behavior to the heart. This proverb gives us a command and a promise.
First, the command. Discipline is not optional according to Scripture. It is the parents’ responsibility to mold and shape and influence the little ones entrusted to their care. However, with this command comes a great responsibility. It requires wisdom and patience to know how to discipline for the benefit of little ones rather than to make life more convenient for parents. There is a great deal of debate and difference of opinion over what methods should be used in disciplining a child.
My belief is that discipline is not optional. Discipline needs to be clear and intelligible to the child with a clear view toward his or her growth and development in wisdom and godliness. However, I don’t believe this proverb prescribes one method of discipline over all others. The governing idea is discipline, instruction, correction. It is also clear the concept of death has a spiritual orientation. The writer is concerned for more than merely earthly life and moral conformity. He is concerned for spiritual life in fellowship and communion with God.
Second, the promise. The goal of discipline is never to get back or to demean, to manipulate or threaten. It is to nurture and preserve life - spiritual life. It is to use the God-given authority as a parent to point a little one toward the true source of life in the Lord Jesus Christ. The gospel always crosses the desires and ambitions of the sinner regardless of age. Perhaps it’s helpful to use an analogous concept - discipleship. Discipline is one dimension of a bigger responsibility to disciple little ones toward the gospel of grace; to raise them in the fear and admonition of the Lord. Biblical discipline is not a hindrance to spiritual life in Christ but a necessary means to that end.
However, when we talk about parenting and discipline it is vitally important to put it in the context of our good and gracious Father, who alone disciplines perfectly for our good. Consider these words from the book of Hebrews:
Consider [Jesus] 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…. 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 seemed 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. Hebrews 12:3-4, 7-11
God “disciplined” his son for us in order to save our soul from Sheol through him! Discipline according to Scripture is a demonstration of love. Scripture knows no other form of discipline.