Book Review: Love that Rescues, by Eric Bargerhuff
Eric Bargerhuff’s book Love that Rescues is nothing if not well titled. The PhD dissertation-turned-book moves through church history, theology, exegesis, and finally local church practice in order to make one basic point: church discipline, in spite of our expectations to the contrary, is all about God’s loving work of rescuing sinners from their sin.
Don’t be intimated by all the footnotes. For an academic-ish work, Love that Rescues is a surprisingly quick and clear read, in part because Bargerhuff admirably disciplines himself to stay on track with this one basic point. Church discipline is not about retribution; it’s about the gospel work of making disciples and calling sinners to follow Christ.
So what do Augustine, Calvin, and the Anabaptists say about church discipline? Well, several things, and they don’t agree entirely, but you’ll find this common theme in their works: church discipline is a love that rescues.
How does God use discipline among his covenant community in the Old Testament? To instruct them and to chastise them toward righteousness. Again, discipline is a love that rescues. And you can guess what Bargerhuff argues in the New Testament: discipline is a love that rescues. Specifically, God is a father who disciplines the sons he loves, as Hebrews 12 puts it. In fact, the entire book seems to be written through the prism of Hebrews 12.
Or let me put it like this: if you were to trace the threads which surface in Hebrews 12 about the loving discipline of the divine father all the way back to the beginning of the Bible, what themes would you be tracing? In a sense, that’s how the book reads, except you start at the beginning of the Bible, and your fingers follow the string, pinch by pinch, all the way to Hebrews 12. It’s a wonderfully encouraging and edifying exercise.
Along the way, both expected and unexpected matters show up. Expectedly, he spends a chapter considering the metaphor of God as “father,” and how it’s relevant to God’s covenant people in a way that it’s not to those outside the covenant. Unexpectedly, for this reader at least, is an entire chapter on penal substitutionary atonement (PSA). Bargerhuff’s basic point here: Christ’s work of substitution on the cross removes any need to view the nature and purpose of church discipline as an act of retribution. Viewing discipline as retributive or punitive will communicate that Christ’s work on the cross was not sufficient to pay for sins.
Or look at it the other way around: If you adopt some other theory of Christ’s work than PSA, you leave sin unpunished, which further means that your practice of church discipline is more likely to be viewed as an act of retribution.
Bargerhuff concludes, “We can therefore confidently assert that insofar as church discipline is charged with dealing with sin and error in the church, its nature and purpose is not punitive retribution, but is rather instructional, remedial, restorative, and reconciliatory” (italics original, 134).
I think Bargerhuff’s theology here is correct, but if I were to offer the book one critique, I would point to one thing that’s missing from this last sentence. True, a church’s activity of discipline, in and of itself, is not retributive. True, it is instructive, remedial, restorative, and reconciliatory. But there’s one more all-important purpose of church discipline that is missing from Bargerhuff’s theological description: church discipline is proleptic of retribution. That is, it’s a small picture of judgment in the present that warns of an even greater judgment to come (e.g. 1 Cor. 5:5).
I’m confident that Bargerhuff would affirm this, based on comments he makes along the way. The trouble is, he labors so hard at affirming the positive, reconciling, or inclusive side of church discipline (and he’s right to do so), that his theological definition and framework of discipline tends to overlook the genuinely warning and exclusivistic side of discipline. Yes, discipline involves a love that aims at rescue. Rescue is the goal. But the thing itself is an act of judgment and exclusion—“Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge? (1 Cor. 5:12).
Churches don’t ultimately know, this side of heaven, whether a person belongs to Christ or not. They cannot see into the heart. When discipline occurs, they hope for rescue, but they don’t know what will happen. Therefore, our theological formulation of the whole exercise needs to strike a balance between inclusion and exclusion, rescue and judgment. It needs to hold both sides together.
Again, I know Bargerhuff agrees with all of this because he says so deep in the book (see pages 150-53). I would simply ask him to make these things more explicit at the definitional level—in the book’s definition of discipline as it’s stated in the introduction and in chapter after chapter. Discipline is about rescue and judgment.
Please understand, then, that my critique is not substantive, but occurs at the level of “theological formulation”—how to say something, or how to define it.
That fine tuning aside, this book is excellent. So buy it and read it. The market already enjoys a number of practical guides to discipline, such as Jay Adams’, Mark Lauterbach’s, Wyman Richardson’s, or Steven McQuoid’s. But this is the first full-length exegetical and theological treatment on discipline I’ve encountered from a contemporary writer, and I would go so far as to say every seminarian and pastor should read it.
If you’ve never read anything on discipline, it’s a worthy introduction, particularly if coupled with something more practical like Lauterbach or Richardson. If you are familiar with discipline, I’d predict that it will strengthen and further equip you to lead your church toward practicing a love that rescues.