Bringing the Savior to the Least of These: The Errors of Retribution Theology

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“Eyes have we, but we see not; understandings we have, but those understandings are perverted… we judge, but we judge unrighteously; by nature we put bitter for sweet, and sweet for bitter; we put darkness for light, and light for darkness; and this is inbred in our nature; you cannot get it out of man, because it is a part of the man.” – Charles Spurgeon

Through the experience of several years of street evangelism, the Lord has taught me many biblical truths such as how His truth is relevant today, how to directly apply His Word to life, and how we can correctly or incorrectly communicate these things to others. Recently, I have been challenged in my own thinking about sin and suffering as I study the book of Job. John Frame aptly said, “Scripture doesn’t play with suffering.” The Bible is the best source to understand and answer the question all many ask, “why is there suffering/evil in the world?” Through my study in Job, I was introduced to the terms, Retribution Theology or Retribution Principle. Retribution Theology is the idea that you get what you deserve (e.g., God rewards or punishes people in this life in direct response to their actions). On the surface, this truth mirrors the concept of sowing and reaping found in Gal. 6:7, yet in Retribution Theology the sowing and reaping principle can be turned on its head and can cause harm to others. One may begin to think that because someone is suffering, they must have sinned or because someone is successful, they must be upright. Job’s friends amazingly stayed with him in silence for an extended time. When they finally opened their mouths, they almost immediately accused him of wrongdoing. Retribution Theology may not be that familiar to you, yet if you read John 9 and the entire book of Job, specifically examining Job’s friends, you will see that many wrong assumptions were made about God’s intentions regarding Job’s suffering. We will also examine Jesus’s teaching in John 9 – here the disciples question Jesus about why the beggar was born blind, an outcast of society who was barred from the temple. The disciples were curious to know whose sin caused this deformity.

Retribution Theology Misapplied in John 9

The Pharisees’ theology about sin and suffering was very similar to the modern day Word of Faith heresy. The principle they taught in the synagogues according to John MacArthur was, “If you are deformed, diseased, have an illness, it’s because of sin directly, not because of the fallenness of the world, but because there’s guilt you are bearing.” MacArthur also stated, “The rabbis were convinced the sins of the parents were visited upon the children and they misapplied Exodus 20, by believing in prenatal sin (sinning in the womb). This teaching resembled the philosophical teaching of Plato, who believed that the soul was sinning before you were conceived.” An examination of Genesis 3 makes it evident that this teaching is wrong. R.C. Sproul said, “Suffering is intrinsically related to the fallenness of this world. From John 9, we cannot conclude that an individual’s suffering in this world is in direct proportion to that individual’s sin. The Bible says that we can’t use such a formula. God allows suffering as part of His judgment for sin in the world, but also uses it for our redemption. A person’s trial may be caused by someone else’s unrighteous behavior.” The context of John 9 is important, Jesus miraculously healed this man during the Festival of Booths where Jesus was repeatedly affirming to the people that He is the light of the world. The message both Jesus and the prophets proclaimed was the gospel. Acts 26:18 shows that the gospel can open men’s eyes by the Holy Spirit’s power. Jesus answered the disciples’ question with a resounding no, sin was not the cause of this man’s blindness from birth. According to Spurgeon, “We start with wrong ideas of self, and the whole business is made confusion, and we ourselves are blinded. We judge spiritual things by our senses.” Jesus stopped to heal the blind man to demonstrate His grace, power, mercy, compassion, and even salvation through yet another Sabbath miracle. Jesus performed the miracle of John 9, a miracle much bigger than restoring the man’s sight: the man heard, obeyed, believed, surrendered, and worshipped Jesus Christ as His Lord and Savior.

Real Life Applications

I recently had the pleasure of speaking to Jeremy Davis, a former BFC intern, and Pastor of Student Ministry at Grace Point, Newtown, PA. Davis and his wife Tara are parents of 3 children, 2 of whom have special needs. Davis shared that Retribution Theology can cause a lot of pain for special needs families. For example, when others subtly insinuate that a child’s diagnosis is a result of sin or because they lack faith this causes much discouragement for them. “My heart is grieved when I think about special needs families. There is an immense weightiness in parenting children with special needs. There’s the normal anxiety of parenting partnered with the inconsistence of unplanned ER trips, month long hospitalizations, and multiple medical appointments which can be a heavy burden to bear and often leads to broken homes,” said Davis. The church has a high calling to step in the gap and care for these families and indispensable image bearers.” Davis has experienced first-hand how our society pushes to abort children with special needs. “The worldly thought is that these lives are less significant, have less value, and less honor.” To refute this sinful belief, we read 1 Cor. 12:21-26. Another comforting truth filled with much hope for us all, but especially for special needs families is Rev. 21:4, He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away. “The gospel message needs to be shared with everyone, but especially special needs families who need to hear the hope of Christ. They need to hear the compassion of Christ and the healing He offers. They need the support only God’s people can offer,” said Davis.

Job’s Life Circumstances

The book of Job is a poetic narrative where we see deep suffering and how Job’s friends were in error by applying Retribution\ Theology. God allowed Job and his friends to speak, yet they did not have the final say. Spurgeon summarized this error with a promise of God, “Men may condemn us falsely, but God never will.” I questioned Rob Turchi, CEO of Hope Rescue Mission, Reading, PA, for his perspective. “Suffering does not discriminate. Homelessness can humble anyone from any race or socioeconomic background,” he stated. “Many people who are guests at the Mission are there as a direct result of a sin issue. However, not always because of a willful sin decision they have made.” Turchi also shared that the most common denominator is trauma. “Many men are homeless due to life circumstances, e.g., working 2 part-time jobs, a roommate moved out, work injuries, and/or mental health.” Turchi has seen how suffering truly opens the door for the gospel. “The guests at the Mission are more open and absorbent to God’s grace and mercy. Suffering awakens many to see their need for Jesus and often cultivates in them a thankful heart … It seems like those who realize they are BIG sinners serve a BIG Savior which motivates them to live for Christ.” Turchi also stated that he is “blessed by seeing many men transformed by Christ; e.g., a man who was mean and selfish turn into a gentle and loving man who wants to share and serve others.” The truth is the Sovereign God is free to act however He chooses, and His ways might not fit into a retribution formula. The Bible tells us many are the afflictions of the righteous. Job challenges all men to contradict what he affirms – that the righteous may be great sufferers, and the wicked may for a while prosper, but that God’s will, in the end, will overthrow the ungodly and establish the righteous. One of the greatest lessons of the book of Job is that we may never judge a man’s character by his condition. How we respond to trials is vital. The mark of a true child of God in trials is that he wants God’s presence and still clings to God. “Unbelievers in trials will forsake God,” said Spurgeon. We also must trust that the Judge of all the earth will always do what is right as Abraham said in Gen. 18:25. Lastly, the life and death of Jesus on the cross between two criminals overthrows man’s idea of Retribution Theology. Jesus was sinless, yet was punished by God, stricken by Him, and afflicted. The Cross of Christ gives human suffering meaning and provides hope!


Krista Miller attends New Life BFC, Oley, PA, and is freelance writer.

The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.” 22 On the contrary, the parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, 23 and on those parts of the body that we think less honorable we bestow the greater honor, and our unpresentable parts are treated with greater modesty, 24 which our more presentable parts do not require. But God has so composed the body, giving greater honor to the part that lacked it, 25 that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another. 26 If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together. I Corinthians 12:21-26

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