A Pastor’s Reflections: Corporal Punishment and the Means of Grace

In the church many godly Christians have well-intended but nevertheless misguided notions about the doctrine of sanctification, especially when it comes to their children. During my pastorate I remember one occasion when I was teaching Sunday School and I explained that corporal punishment (spanking) was not a means of grace—it could not, and did not, bring about a child’s greater sanctification. When I made the statement a few hands immediately shot up because some parents thought I was against corporal punishment. I emphatically said I was not against the form of discipline, though I noted that it’s not the only tool in the shed when it comes to correcting a child’s behavior. Each child is different and sometimes corporal punishment doesn’t help—it makes a situation worse. Nevertheless, I told the Sunday School class, whatever form of punishment you choose is a matter of wisdom and Christian liberty, but none of these forms of discipline are means of grace. 

When I made the statement a second time, another hand shot up and challenged my claim. In response, I pointed the concerned parent to the Westminster Standards and told him that neither they, nor any other Reformed confession, identify corporal punishment as a means of grace. The same person then asked of what use was corporal punishment. I told him that any form of discipline aims to correct behavior, and corporal punishment can have the same effect on the Muslim and Christian child alike. A child does not like pain, so he will stop misbehaving so he doesn’t receive a spanking (in all seriousness, in accordance with local state laws). No one should ever physically abuse a child. Corporal punishment and child abuse are two totally different things. But moral behavior isn’t the same thing as greater sanctification and conformity to Christ.

A child can grow up to be perfectly moral—he follows all the laws of the state, he is polite, kind, and friendly, but apart from trusting in Christ, such a person is destined for hell. Corporal punishment only creates morality, not conformity to Christ. Does this mean that you should cease all forms of discipline and read the Bible to your child when he sins? No. When I have punished my own children, I sit them down and ensure they understand why they were punished. Then, I tell them that they have two things they must do: (1) make things right with the offended party, and (2) make things right with God. I encourage or even lead my child in prayer to seek God’s forgiveness through Christ, plead for the grace of the Holy Spirit to change his conduct and conform him more to Christ, and even point out passages in the Bible that address his particular failing. The discipline is not a means of grace but becomes the occasion where I apply the means of grace. Christ through the Spirit and the use of prayer and the word bring about my child’s greater sanctification. 

As vital and important as disciplining our children is, we must never forget that only Spirit-empowered use of the means of grace bring about godly character and holy conduct. The pagan child can look just as moral as the Christian child, but one draws his conduct from himself whereas the other rests in the power of Christ and the Spirit—the former is merely moral whereas the latter manifests the fruit of the Spirit. The two look similar but are literally worlds apart—the old versus the righteousness of the new heavens and earth. 

Use wisdom when you discipline your children but always point them to Christ and apply the means of grace to their tender hearts.