Here’s a question I see often in the inbox, but we’re just now getting to it. Why does God threaten to end the lives of some Christians? Today’s email comes from a baffled listener named Mike. “Hello, Pastor John! Every time our church celebrates the Lord’s Supper, the appropriate warnings are sounded. It’s not for non-Christians. It’s not for Christians harboring resentment. But I remain rather confused about 1 Corinthians 11:27–32, a text that appears to be delivered to true Christians so their abrupt discipline will prevent their eventual condemnation. Why would God physically kill one of his children and end their earthly life early? Couldn’t he sustain them to the end just as easily? Can you explain the merciful judgment on believers that Paul is talking about here?”
Weakness, Illness, and Death
My guess is that this question will seem strange to some of our listeners. Why would God physically kill one of his children? That’s what he’s asking. Or even if we soften it and avoid the word kill, why would God take one of his children home as a means of discipline to prevent condemnation when he might have prevented it another way? That’s the gist of the question. It is a very good question, and it’s demanded by 1 Corinthian 11:27–32. So, let me read that, so everybody is with us in this question. We’re not making this up.
“If he makes us weak, he’s loving us. If he makes us ill, he’s loving us. If he takes our life, he’s loving us.”
It says, “Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord [meaning the Lord’s supper] in an unworthy manner [I take this to mean a cavalier, minimizing, unbelieving, careless way] will be guilty concerning the body and blood of the Lord” (1 Corinthians 11:27). In other words, if you treat lightly and disrespectfully and irreverently the precious emblems of the Lord’s crucifixion, you’re showing that you don’t cherish and tremble at the horror and preciousness of the real crucifixion. I think that’s the logic.
He continues, “Let a person examine himself, then, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body [that is, without seriously distinguishing this bread from a breakfast biscuit] eats and drinks judgment on himself. That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died” (1 Corinthians 11:28–30). So there are three levels of severity, it sounds like: weakness, sickness, and death. “But if we judged ourselves truly, we would not be judged. But when we are judged by the Lord [that is, judged with weakness or sickness or death], we are disciplined so that we may not be condemned along with the world” (1 Corinthians 11:31–32).
So weakness, sickness, and even death are the Lord’s discipline to prevent his people from being condemned to hell. There’s the reality that raises the question. The question is not whether God has the right take life. Mike is granting that the Lord gives, the Lord takes away, and our response is “Blessed be the name of the Lord” (Job 1:21). Job said that, and Mike is believing that.
God’s Work in His People
The question is “If God is taking the life of one of his children so that they will not be condemned to everlasting destruction, couldn’t he have spared them another way — namely, by causing them to eat the Lord’s Supper more respectfully? Why wouldn’t he do that?” That’s the question. The answer to the question is that God could indeed prevent the desecration of the Lord’s Supper by restraining the desecration. Yes, he could.
“Let’s be careful that we don’t decide what’s best and tell God how to do it. We watch him and learn what’s best.”
For example, in Genesis 20:6, when Abimelech the king was about to defile Abraham’s wife, Sarah, God kept him from doing it. It says, “It was I who kept you from sinning against me.” So, he can do it for a pagan king; he can do it for his children. He can keep them from sinning at the Lord’s Table.
In the New Testament, God works in his people to keep them pursuing holiness, at least to the measure that they have (1 Corinthians 15:10; Philippians 2:12; 2 Thessalonians 1:11; Hebrews 13:21; 1 Peter 1:5). God works in his people to restrain from them sin and lead them in holiness. So God could have prevented the desecration of the Lord’s Supper and, thus, the discipline that he brings on those who desecrate it. So why doesn’t he?
Now, before I try to answer that, let’s be sure that we see how sweeping this question is. The question really is a specific instance of asking, “Why is there any divine discipline in the Christian life?” The question is not just “Why does God use the final discipline of taking a life?” but “Why would there be any physical or mental or relational difficulties brought into the Christian life as a way of preventing their sin and advancing their holiness?” Why not just prevent the sin and create the holiness by faith and by a clear sight of Jesus and by the ordinary means of word and prayer? Why should there be any form of painful discipline in the life of God’s children? That’s the larger question implied in this specific one.
Let’s be sure that we know God does discipline his children with more or less painful things in their life. We know that because of Hebrews 12:4–10. It says,
In your struggle against sin you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood. . . . My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord, nor be weary when reproved by him. For the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives. 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? . . . He disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness. (Hebrews 12:4–7, 10)
1 Corinthians 11:30 is one description of that discipline that we just read from Hebrews 12. It happens at different levels. For some, it’s weakness. For some, it’s illness. For some, it’s death. Don’t forget the words “the Lord disciplines the one he loves.” If he makes us weak, he’s loving us. If he makes us ill, he’s loving us. If he takes our life, he’s loving us.
Trust His Ways
Now, why does God do it this way? Why not just perfect us all overnight? That really is what the question boils down to. Why doesn’t he bring us to the greatest holiness with no painful discipline? Why doesn’t he just say, “Read your Bible and pray and be holy” — and no painful discipline at all?
“God knows best how to produce great wonders in his church. We shouldn’t second-guess him.”
My answer goes something like this. God knows the best way to bring about in his children (1) a love for his absolute holiness, (2) a hatred of our bent to sinning, (3) gratitude for his amazing grace and patience in our lives, and (4) a passion to trust him in every circumstance of life. He knows the best way to do this.
So, let’s be careful that we don’t decide what’s best and tell him how to do it. We watch him and learn what’s best. He knows best how to produce these great wonders in his church. We shouldn’t second-guess him.