How the Doctrine of Sanctification Propels the Practice of Church Discipline
More than 150 years ago, Baptist pastor John Dagg wrote, “When discipline leaves a church, Christ goes with it.” Dagg recognized that neglecting discipline undermines the credibility of a church’s witness. When unrepentant sin festers among those who profess Christ’s name, the church begins to misrepresent the gospel.
Scripture, therefore, calls churches to exercise discipline (e.g. Matt. 18:15-17; 1 Cor. 5). Discipline safeguards the integrity of their gospel testimony and the purity of their membership.
However, the practice of discipline is fraught with challenges. It involves a significant investment of pastoral time and energy. It can be difficult, messy, upsetting, and potentially divisive. For this reason, churches may be inclined to shy away.
But practicing church discipline isn’t optional. Why? Well, first of all, because Scripture commands it. But there’s another reason I want to focus on in this article. We practice church discipline because it’s a necessary implication of the biblical doctrine of sanctification.
In fact, church discipline is a God-given means of growing his people in holiness. It seeks the good of the sinner, the building up of the church, and the glory of God. Understanding how the doctrine of sanctification underpins church discipline can encourage us toward greater faithfulness in practicing this means of grace.
1. The doctrine of sanctification provides the basis for church discipline.
Sanctification is a work of God, involving an inward change accomplished by the Word of God and the Holy Spirit. Speaking through the prophet Ezekiel, God promised to sanctify his people by giving them new hearts: “And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules” (Ezek. 36:26–27).
Jesus Christ has fulfilled this prophetic expectation. When we believe in Jesus, his Spirit indwells us and enables us to live in newness of life. “For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit” (Rom. 8:3–4). Biblical conversion transforms us from the inside out through the power of gospel.
Therefore, justification and sanctification—though distinct—are inseparable. Both result from our union with Christ. He not only rescues us from the guilt of sin; he also saves us from its power and pollution. As Paul says in 1 Corinthians 1:30: “And because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption.”
Because Jesus transforms sinners to saints, we can expect God’s new covenant people to be holy as they are continually renewed by the Spirit. In Christ, we have passed from darkness to light, from death to life. The gospel brings about obedience that flows from faith. We are to be holy as our heavenly Father who called us is holy (1 Pet. 1:15).
The church, therefore, is a holy people, redeemed and consecrated to God through the sprinkling of Christ’s blood and the renewal of the Spirit. As believers, we are expected to walk in holiness in a manner worthy of our calling. We ought to be characterised by a lifestyle of repentance and faith because we have been sanctified.
All this provides the basis for church discipline.
The church practices discipline because of who God’s people are in Christ. That’s why Paul urges the Corinthian church to “cleanse out the old leaven that you may be a new lump, as you really are unleavened. For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed” (1 Cor. 5:7). By excluding those who persist in unrepentant sin, church discipline ensures that those who bear Christ’s name also reflect his holy character. Discipline safeguards the sanctified nature of Christ’s church.
2. The doctrine of sanctification guides the practice of church discipline.
God’s sanctifying work doesn’t preclude our responsibility to pursue holiness. In fact, thanks to our new nature in Christ, we can make progress in sanctification. Theologians have summarized these realities by saying sanctification is both positional and progressive. The latter flows out of the former. Sanctification is one way God accomplishes his purpose for us: to conform us to the image of his Son. But because we’ve not yet arrived, we are to grow in Christlikeness until our salvation is complete.
Along with other means of grace—like the ministry of the Word, the ordinances, the fellowship of the saints, and prayer—church discipline exists for our sanctification. It aims at our holiness. This means churches should practice discipline with the goal of leading the offending person to repentance and restoration. Grasping the goal of sanctification keeps us focused on Christ and Christlikeness amid challenging pastoral situations. It also guards our hearts from becoming hardened or unloving toward the offending person, and to persevere in seeking his or her eternal good.
In Matthew 18, Jesus says the purpose in addressing another’s sin is to “gain our brother” (v. 15)—that is, to win the person back to Christ. Similarly, Paul commands the Corinthians to deliver the unrepentant man “to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord” (1 Cor. 5:5). Church discipline, rightly understood, is not contrary to love. In fact, it is motivated by love because its goal is repentance and restoration.
The progressive aspect of sanctification also reminds us to be patient in the practice of church discipline. It’s worth noting that right after Jesus instructs his disciples concerning church discipline, he emphasizes the importance of having a spirit of forgiveness (Matt. 18:21–22). On this side of eternity, we will continue to struggle with sin. Sanctification is a life-long process, and it’s often slow and difficult.
So, even as we seek to avoid complacency toward sin in the church, we should also beware the pitfall of being harsh and impatient. Just as our heavenly Father is patient with us, let us exercise discipline with wisdom and gentleness, lest a contrite brother or sister “be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow” (2 Cor. 7). As Paul reminds us, “Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted. Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfil the law of Christ.” (Gal. 6:1-2)
We seek genuine repentance, not sinless perfection. The latter will have to wait till Jesus returns, which brings me to our last point.
3. The doctrine of sanctification encourages hope in the outcome of church discipline.
Exercising church discipline is hard, but we can press on in faith, knowing that our Bridegroom will sanctify his bride. He will not fail to “present the church to himself in splendour, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish” (Eph. 5:27).
This is our hope: Our Lord knows and loves his own. We can trust him to work in and through us for our good and his glory. While we practice church discipline in the meantime, we do so with our eyes fixed on Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith. He will see to it that not one of his sheep will ultimately be lost. Therefore, our part is simply to be faithful under-shepherds of our Chief Shepherd.
We can be assured that as our churches listen and look to our Lord, we shall become more like him. “And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit” (2 Cor. 3:18).