In 2013, 16-year-old Cooper Van Huizen was sentenced to two years in prison for stealing his father’s gun. The gun was used in a violent burglary, and the boy was held responsible for providing it. His family sobbed as he was led away to a maximum-security prison. Cold, hard justice had been served.

Switch scenes. The setting is my living room. The 4-year-old just wrecked his brother’s Lego pirate ship (with a mischievous grin, of course).

Court is in session. A brief defense is given by both parties. A decision is made, and a consequence is given.

But this is where a Christian home takes a dramatic shift from a courtroom. The boy in the court case faced punishment. My son faces something very different: discipline.

Discipline vs. Punishment 

The word “punishment” comes from the root “pun,” from which we get words like “punitive” and “penalty.” Punitive, penalty, and punishment all relate to the law and what happens when the law is broken. Punishment is retributive. It means exacting what’s deserved for the committed offense.

As incredible as it sounds, this will never happen to God’s people. Punishment is no longer part of our relationship with God. Christ absorbed every drop of punishment on the cross for us. God isn’t our Judge anymore; he’s our Father. We will never be punished for our sins.

Instead, as part of our new punishment-free relationship with God, we will be lovingly disciplined.

Though discipline and punishment may look and feel similar in many ways, they are radically different. Punishment seeks retribution; discipline seeks restoration. Punishment looks to the law; discipline looks to grace.

Now, that doesn’t mean discipline gives us a free pass from consequences. But God will only allow consequences that work for our good and his glory. Grace might still involve pain for God’s people, but it’s a purposeful pain. And the purpose of discipline is to conform us to the image of Christ. What could be better for us?

Why Discipline? 

So how does this relate to parenting? We want to be parents who discipline rather than punish. While we don’t necessarily know if our children are Christians, this is one of the most tangible ways we can point them to the hope of a Savior.

Here are two ways discipline looks different from punishment in parenting:

1. Discipline seeks a changed heart.

When the judge sentenced the 16-year-old boy, he checked him off the list and moved on to the next case. There was no follow-up between the judge and the boy. Why would there be? Justice had been served, and that’s all punishment requires.

It’s easy to punish our kids in order to check off a parental duty, but we need to make sure we’re taking time to address the heart. 

When my 4-year-old wrecked the pirate ship, punitive justice would have exacted a logical consequence: Rebuild it, and you can’t play with anything else until you do. While loving discipline might give the same consequence, it takes time to create a teachable moment. “Was what you did kind?” I asked my son. “We want to be kind to each other because Jesus is so kind to us. How can you show kindness to your brother?” When my husband and I talk to our kids, we’re careful to use words like “consequence” and “discipline” rather than “punishment.”

To be honest, this is the most exhausting part of parenting for me. There are so many times it would be easier to just be a cold, objective judge. I could dole out the consequences and go back to making dinner. But I have to remind myself that I represent God to my kids. Do they see him as a shepherd, or only as a judge?

When we take time to discipline our kids’ hearts, we pave the way for gospel hope.

2. Discipline seeks a changed relationship.

Think how strange it would have been if the judge in the courtroom had jumped up from his seat and thrown his arms around the convicted boy. Punishment doesn’t require any kind of relationship between the judge and the guilty party.

But we want relationship with our children. And true relationship with them is impossible without discipline. Discipline actually proves sonship.

The Lord disciplines the one he loves, and chastens every son whom he receives. . . . For what son is there whom his father does not discipline? But if you are left without discipline, in which all have participated, then you are illegitimate children and not sons. (Heb. 12:6–8)

As I heard one pastor express it, “There is only one thing worse for a kid than being spanked, grounded, or having the phone and computer taken away: being neglected.”

We often function as though we have two options when our kids disobey: to punish or to ignore. Discipline does neither. It peels back the layers of sinful actions in order to deal with causes and attitudes underneath. Punishment looks to the past. Discipline looks to the hope of the future, and says, “I don’t care about what you did as much as why you did it and what it means for your future if we don’t deal with it now.”

Staff, Not Gavel

Punishment is easier than discipline. We’re wired for justice, and our short tempers fuel our inner “judge.” Discipline requires patience, wisdom, and love.

The next time an offense is committed in your home, remember how your Father treats you when you sin. Address it head on, but don’t neglect the heart. Pursue relationship. Remember that you’ve been entrusted with the care-giving staff of a shepherd, not the gavel of a judge.