It is one thing to practice discipline where there is a clear violation of the law of God, and there is unrepentant behavior after much careful concern and pleading with the person, and a great deal of effort in prayer. But where discipline gets to be simply a matter of the opinion of a board of men, discipline gets out of hand. This is something that needs to be guarded against.
There is the great statement that the Westminster divines devised and which is passed down to us, saying that we must never teach the traditions or the advice of men as if they were the commandments of God. It is quite proper for us in the church to give advice on a large number of things; this is where the wisdom of the elders and other church leaders comes in. We should give godly advice to one another, just as we should seek it out. But discipline is another matter. Paul, in this letter to the Corinthians, was saying that when the church was disobeying apostolic instruction, discipline was to be practiced.
When Paul mentioned Christ’s being crucified in weakness while yet living in power, he also spoke about his own weakness. We are reminded by Paul’s reference to Christ that, just as Paul was going to come again to the church at Corinth, so is the Lord Jesus Christ going to come one day to his Church. Then there is going to be an accounting on the part of those who have been called to serve him in this world. It is with that in view that we are to think of this matter of discipline in the church. Jesus is to be our pattern in terms of how to deal with sin. He does not overlook it, but, nevertheless, he is gentle, longsuffering, and kind in the way he deals with us. His concern is not to knock us down but to build us up and establish us in righteousness in the way that we should go.
In the second major portion of chapter 13, verses 5 through 10, Paul wrote about self-examination. As we have seen, Paul was very concerned with what had been happening in the church at Corinth. The believers there had been following the false apostles and had also been conducting themselves immorally.
Paul had been pressing this point repeatedly. He did so by arguing for his own authority as a necessary bulwark for what he had to say to them here in this epistle. Here at the end of the letter, Paul was still at it. He challenged them to examine their hearts before God to see if they were in a right relationship to Christ.
The believers at Corinth would likely have argued, “We believe everything you taught, Paul. Certainly we are followers of Jesus Christ.” But when Paul wrote this way, he was raising the possibility that, in spite of their profession, they may not actually have been born again. So he wrote, “Examine yourselves to see whether you are in the faith; test yourselves” (2 Cor. 13:5).
Paul is by no means referring to matters of doctrinal interpretation. Important as right doctrine is, understanding Scripture in all its fullness often requires a process. Rather, Paul admonished them to investigate whether or not they were truly in the Christian faith or whether they were merely playing at it. He said, “Do you not realize that Christ Jesus is in you–unless, of course, you fail the test?” (2 Cor. 13:5). Paul raised this possibility and then called upon them to examine themselves on the basis of their current behavior.
There is a delicate balance here, is there not? One of the marks of maturity in the church is our ability to hold some of these things in proper balance. We have already spoken of the matter of discipline. Do we need discipline? Yes. At the same time, Paul said, we need a restricted discipline, a careful discipline, and a gracious discipline.
This matter of self-examination brings forth another mark of maturity. In the Bible there are passages that point clearly to the work of God in redeeming us. As we study Scripture, we see that the work of God in resurrecting us from spiritual death has been done, that we are alive in Christ, and that we belong to him. And because we belong to him, we are going to be his forevermore. We rightly talk of the “assurance of salvation,” and “eternal security,” and the fact that this should be known by Christian people and should be something that we cling to.