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Retribution Theology Refuted

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I can remember when I was a manager in a secular workplace, having a discussion with an employee about the idea of Karma. Karma is the idea that good will be repayed with good and bad will be repaid with bad. And I can remember thinking, well the Bible does teach the law of sowing and reaping. You reap what you sow. I can agree with that Biblical concept at least. But there is a major problem with the idea of Karma, and there is a potential danger as well with our understanding of the law of sowing and reaping. If we accept Karma to be true and if we accept the law of sowing and reaping to be an absolute truth in this lifetime we end up with something that has existed for thousands of years dating back all the way to the time of Job, and that is retribution theology. Today Job is going to thoroughly refute the concept of retribution theology.
Definition of Retribution theology:
“Retribution theology holds that there is an automatic connection between a person’s deeds and state of being.” IN THIS LIFE
(Edward Glenney, “How Well Do you Know God?,” Central Baptist Seminary Testimony 36 [Spring 1994]: 3).
The key competent of this theology is that the connection operates in this life, not just in the eternal state.
Not talking about justification
If there was an automatic connection between a person’s deeds and their state of being as far as justification is concerned, then we would all be in a lot of trouble.
Titus 3:5 KJV 1900
Not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to his mercy he saved us, by the washing of regeneration, and renewing of the Holy Ghost;
Ephesians 2:8–9 KJV 1900
For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: Not of works, lest any man should boast.
2. Now as a general truth, it is true that you reap what you sow.
Galatians 6:7 KJV 1900
Be not deceived; God is not mocked: for whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap.
The person who lives righteously often generally benefits from his choices, even if the only benefit he receives is the absence of self-inflicted pain.
But the wicked often get away with sin and do not pay for it in this life.
3. God is not unjust. There is coming a day when God will judge the world in righteousness.
Acts 17:30–31 KJV 1900
And the times of this ignorance God winked at; but now commandeth all men every where to repent: Because he hath appointed a day, in the which he will judge the world in righteousness by that man whom he hath ordained; whereof he hath given assurance unto all men, in that he hath raised him from the dead.
And that goes for rewarding those that are faithful to Him as well.
Hebrews 10:36 KJV 1900
36 For ye have need of patience, that, after ye have done the will of God, ye might receive the promise.
The key idea is that there is not an automatic connection between someone’s deeds and their state of being in this lifetime.
That is exactly what Job’s friends believed.
What was Job’s state of being? Pretty bad right?
Then according to retribution theology what must his deeds have been like? Equally as bad. Job must have sinned horribly in order to incur this amount of judgement from God. The problem is that just was not true. Job didn’t deserve any of the destruction that he received, but God allowed it for His own purposes. We know what those purposes are, but Job did not know, nor did God ever tell him.
Job knows retribution theology to be false, because of the evidence in his own life. Here is Job 21, Job will handily discredit and disprove retribution theology.
Beyond Suffering: Discovering the Message of Job Job: Let’s Go over This Once More (Job 21)

Up to this point, Job has largely ignored the fallacy of their argument, popping their theological balloons only occasionally (9:24; 12:6) Now he is going to butcher and barbecue their sacred cow.

Today we are going to look at several arguments from Job that systematically refute retribution theology.

I. The wicked often experience blessing in this lifetime

A. Job’s final appeal for sympathy

Job 21:1–3 KJV 1900
1 But Job answered and said, 2 Hear diligently my speech, And let this be your consolations. 3 Suffer me that I may speak; And after that I have spoken, mock on.
Job wants his friends to “hear diligently” or listen carefully to what he is about to say.
“And let this be your consolations”- the idea here is that their attention to what he is about to say would be a comfort to him. A better translation would be “Let this be the consolation you give.”
“Suffer me that I may speak” the emphatic Hebrew pronoun emphasizes that Job wishes to get his word on the matter in the conversation. Have you ever had a conversation with someone and you can’t get a word in edge wise? That is the idea here, “listen carefully to me, let your attention and your silence be a comfort to me, and suffer that I might speak.”
Then Job states, after I have said my peace, mock on. Job wants his friend to hear him out before they openly react and reject what he has to say. Job seems to be resigned to his friends rejection and mockery of what he is about to say, nevertheless he wants them to at least try to be sympathetic to what his is about to say.
Job 21:4–6 KJV 1900
4 As for me, is my complaint to man? And if it were so, why should not my spirit be troubled? 5 Mark me, and be astonished, And lay your hand upon your mouth. 6 Even when I remember I am afraid, And trembling taketh hold on my flesh.
Here Job note three good reasons for why his friends should give him their undivided attention.
He is not actually being critical of any man (4)
His present condition should put them into a state of stunned silence (5)
Job’s present condition was certainly a shock to him (6)

B. Job’s irrefutable evidence

Job is going to make the point that the wicked are often blessed and he is going to stack up a wealth of evidence against his friends and their belief in retribution theology.
The wicked live long lives and grow powerful
Job 21:7 KJV 1900
7 Wherefore do the wicked live, Become old, yea, are mighty in power?
By the way this is a direct refutation of Bildad’s earlier speech in chapter 20.
Job 20:5–7 KJV 1900
5 That the triumphing of the wicked is short, And the joy of the hypocrite but for a moment? 6 Though his excellency mount up to the heavens, And his head reach unto the clouds; 7 Yet he shall perish for ever like his own dung: They which have seen him shall say, Where is he?
Here Job is saying, Zophar! You say that the triumph of the wicked is short, their joy momentary? Why, then, do the wicked live to a healthy old age?
2. The children of the wicked prosper too- they benefit from the wicked parents’ success
Job 21:8 KJV 1900
8 Their seed is established in their sight with them, And their offspring before their eyes.
Zophar, not only do the wicked live to a ripe old age, but they also get to enjoy their posterity!
3. The wicked are safe from the type of harm that Job suffered
Job 21:9 KJV 1900
9 Their houses are safe from fear, Neither is the rod of God upon them.
The homes of the wicked are safe [šālôm, lit. “peace”] from fear.
Proverbs 3:25 KJV 1900
25 Be not afraid of sudden fear, Neither of the desolation of the wicked, when it cometh.
Wait a minute, is this a contradiction? The wicked are the ones who are supposed to be afraid of sudden disaster, yet Job is stating that they do not live under the cloud of such fear and dread? Remember, Proverbs is fully of general truths. Generally, if you are living in wickedness there is a fear of repercussions. But not always, sometimes the wicked live in peace.
Also key is the choice of Job’s word in the latter part of v. 9. Job says that the “rod” of God is not upon them.
This is the same word that Job used about his situation
Job 9:34 KJV 1900
34 Let him take his rod away from me, And let not his fear terrify me:
So here Job clearly points out that the wicked are safe, they have peace. While he, the righteous one, is under the rod of God.
4. Their herds are productive and growing
Job 21:10 KJV 1900
10 Their bull gendereth, and faileth not; Their cow calveth, and casteth not her calf.
The Book of Job (1) The Blessings of the Wicked (21:7–16)

The fertility of their cattle is representative of the prosperity in every area of this person’s estate.

5. Their prosperity creates a climate of joyful celebration in the home
Job 21:11–12 KJV 1900
11 They send forth their little ones like a flock, And their children dance. 12 They take the timbrel and harp, And rejoice at the sound of the organ.
This vivid picture of the children going forth in security and happiness and the whole family dancing to the music of various instruments is a picture of idyllic happiness.
6. They live long lives and die easily
Job 21:13 KJV 1900
13 They spend their days in wealth, And in a moment go down to the grave.
The Book of Job (1) The Blessings of the Wicked (21:7–16)

All of their days are spent in prosperity (lit. “good,” ṭôḇ) and enjoyment. When their days come to an end, they descend to Sheol quietly and quickly, free from any prolonged, agonizing illness. A serene death means that the joy of the wicked is as full as possible.

7. Yet they want nothing to do with God
Job 21:14–15 KJV 1900
14 Therefore they say unto God, Depart from us; For we desire not the knowledge of thy ways. 15 What is the Almighty, that we should serve him? And what profit should we have, if we pray unto him?
Their rejection of God is conscious and wilful
Job nonetheless rejects their theological stance
Job 21:16 KJV 1900
16 Lo, their good is not in their hand: The counsel of the wicked is far from me.
But, their good/prosperity is not in their hand. Here Job is stating that their good or their prosperity came from God, not their own hands, even if they didn’t acknowledge it.
And, Job states the counsel of the wicked is far from me. Even though the wicked prosper he refused to admit they are correct, and that is another reason to classify Job as righteous.
Three days after the election, Cecile Richards, the president of Planned Parenthood, said she’d seen “an unprecedented outpouring of support,” with almost 80,000 donations having come in.
The American Civil Liberties Union saw its donation page crash on Wednesday morning after visitors to the page, the ACLU said increased by 7,000 percent. In a statement on Monday, the organization said that in just five days it has received “roughly 120,000 donations totaling more than $7.2 million.”
The wicked often experience blessing in this lifetime.
Now we have to remember that these people of Planned Parenthood and the ACLU are not our enemies. They are people who need the gospel just as much as we did. Yet many of the things that they do are evil. If retribution theology was true they should be a smoldering crater by this point, but instead they experience earthly blessings.
We must not allow circumstances to affect the way we view God. Sometimes, for His own mysterious purposes, He allows the righteous to suffer and the wicked to prosper. I think Job’s response to this is a good one.
Job 21:16 KJV 1900
16 Lo, their good is not in their hand: The counsel of the wicked is far from me.
Their good is not in their hands. God is the one in control. And he may allow the wicked to prosper in this lifetime. Even their whole lifetime. They may go down to the grave at “peace.” But there is coming a day when God will judge the world in righteousness. Therefore, we must say, as Job did, the counsel of the wicked is far from me. And we must learn to trust God through the trials of life that He allows to come our way.

II. The wicked are often punished infrequently

A. Job’s disagreement

Here Job disagrees with Bildad’s argument.
Job 18:5–6 KJV 1900
5 Yea, the light of the wicked shall be put out, And the spark of his fire shall not shine. 6 The light shall be dark in his tabernacle, And his candle shall be put out with him.
Bildad claims that the light of the wicked is snuffed out.
Job 18:12 KJV 1900
12 His strength shall be hungerbitten, And destruction shall be ready at his side.
Bildad also claimed that destruction or calamity is ready, lit. crouches, as his side.

B. Job’s evaluation

Job 21:17–18 KJV 1900
17 How oft is the candle of the wicked put out! And how oft cometh their destruction upon them! God distributeth sorrows in his anger. 18 They are as stubble before the wind, And as chaff that the storm carrieth away.
Here Job is asking a series of questions concerning the actual experience of the wicked.
Bildad! You say that the light of the wicked is snuffed out [18:5–6], and calamity crouches beside him ready to pounce [18:12]? But how often is it, really, that the lamp of the wicked is put out? And how often is it, really, that destruction comes upon them? How often does God distribute sorrow to them according to His anger? And how often are the wicked driven before the wind like stubble and chaff? And the answer? Not all that often. Actually the wicked are punished infrequently.

C. Job’s rejection

Here Job rejects the argument that retribution theology can be maintained by asserting that God punishes the children of the wicked.
Job 21:19–21 KJV 1900
19 God layeth up his iniquity for his children: He rewardeth him, and he shall know it. 20 His eyes shall see his destruction, And he shall drink of the wrath of the Almighty. 21 For what pleasure hath he in his house after him, When the number of his months is cut off in the midst?
The friends have made veiled references to Job’s children as evidence of Job’s own sin.
e.g. Eliphaz-
Job 5:4 KJV 1900
4 His children are far from safety, And they are crushed in the gate, neither is there any to deliver them.
So the argument has gone something like this.
Job’s friends- The wicked are always punished “The light of the wicked shall be put out.”
Job- Really? How often do the wicked actually get punished in this life? “How oft is the candle of the wicked put out?”
Job’s friends- well sometimes God waits to judge the children of the wicked instead. “God layeth up the iniquity of the wicked for his children.”
Job- 19b better translated as “Let Him (God) reward the wicked man (himself, and not his children), that he may know it.
20- Again better translated- “Let his eyes (the wicked man’s own eyes) see his destruction, and let him drink of the wrath of the the Almighty (not his children).
21- For what pleasure (what does the wicked care about) his house after him. The idea is- what does he care what happens after he is gone?
But Job essentially says, what justice is there in punishing my children? It only encourages even more wicked living (19).
Those who are wicked care generally care for themselves anyway; why concern themselves with anything that will happen once they have died (20-21)?
Indian call center scheme- how often really is their lamp put out? For the time being their evil is left unpunished.
I am not arguing that sin is profitable or acceptable.
Romans 6:1–2 KJV 1900
1 What shall we say then? Shall we continue in sin, that grace may abound? 2 God forbid. How shall we, that are dead to sin, live any longer therein?
Nor am I saying that sin will go unpunished.
Hebrews 9:27 KJV 1900
27 And as it is appointed unto men once to die, but after this the judgment:
All sin, all wickedness carries with it a debt that must be paid. That includes any sin, not just the sin of overly evil people. The Bible says that all have sinned and come short of the glory of God. And that the wages, or the debt that must be paid for our sin is death, spiritual death forever separated from God in a place called hell. We can never repay this debt. God’s word says that it is not by works of righteousness that we have done, but according to his own mercy he saved us. Our debt was paid long ago by the blood of Jesus Christ when he died for our sins on the cross. And our debt can be paid if we simply put our faith in the death, burial, and resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ. Just because the wicked are punished infrequently in this lifetime does not mean that they will not be held accountable.
Romans 2:4–5 KJV 1900
4 Or despisest thou the riches of his goodness and forbearance and longsuffering; not knowing that the goodness of God leadeth thee to repentance? 5 But after thy hardness and impenitent heart treasurest up unto thyself wrath against the day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgment of God;
God’s word says that for those who reject Christ and his forgiveness are lit storing up wrath for themselves for the day of wrath when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed.
By for those who will humble themselves, and ask Jesus to forgive them of their sin, He will remove the penalty of sin from their account.
Romans 3:23–24 KJV 1900
23 For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God; 24 Being justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus:
Jesus has already paid the dept for our sins. He has already suffered the wrath of God for the sins of the world on our behalf. And if you will put your faith in Christ He will exchange your sin, with all its penalty, for His own righteousness.
2 Corinthians 5:21 KJV 1900
21 For he hath made him to be sin for us, who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God in him.
Do not become discouraged when you see the wicked go unpunished. God is still in control and He is working all things out according the His own perfect will.
Do not despise the goodness and longsuffering of God. Instead trust Christ so that your debt might be forgiven.

III. Retribution theology fails to explain the injustices of life

A. An absurd question

Job 21:22 KJV 1900
22 Shall any teach God knowledge? Seeing he judgeth those that are high.
Job’s friends have describe a theology where God brings about quick retribution for the wicked. This theology is easily countered by simply observation, so Job asks them an absurd question.
Can anyone teach God knowledge, the one who judges those that are on high (the exalted ones)?
Who in their right mind would admit that they could teach God anything? Job’s friends would find that idea ridiculous.
So either God does not operate they way you think He does, or you are going to have to clue God in on the things He is missing.
The Book of Job (3) The Failure of the Doctrine of Retribution (21:22–26)

He is also telling them that they do not have to defend God’s governance so vehemently. After all, God is the judge of the exalted inhabitants of heaven.

B. A hypothetical situation

Some die prematurely in a state of ease (23-24).
Job 21:23–24 KJV 1900
23 One dieth in his full strength, Being wholly at ease and quiet. 24 His breasts are full of milk, And his bones are moistened with marrow.
V.24 is better- His buckets are full of milk
Others die prematurely “in bitterness of soul, never having tasted of prosperity” (25).
Job 21:25 KJV 1900
25 And another dieth in the bitterness of his soul, And never eateth with pleasure.
Both go to the grave and are indistinguishable in death.
There is no apparent rationale why one should have been any better off than the other.
So, the doctrine of retribution crumbles under the weight of examples that can be multiplied against it.

C. An Anticipated Rebuttal

Job 21:27 KJV 1900
27 Behold, I know your thoughts, And the devices which ye wrongfully imagine against me.
He seems aware that they are already outlining their answer to him (27).
Job 21:28 KJV 1900
28 For ye say, Where is the house of the prince? And where are the dwelling places of the wicked?
They are going to say to him, “there is no evidence that the wicked prosper, that what you say is true.” (28).
Job 21:29 KJV 1900
29 Have ye not asked them that go by the way? And do ye not know their tokens,
But their experience is too narrow to draw this conclusion (29).
(1) More well-traveled people would confirm what Job says.
(2) “Previously Eliphaz had rejected the idea that strangers could give any information to the truly wise (15:18-19), but Job is renouncing such a position as myopic thinking intended to protect his theology from being challenged by any evidence to the contrary” (Hartley, 321).
Job’s conclusion:
Job 21:30 KJV 1900
30 That the wicked is reserved to the day of destruction? They shall be brought forth to the day of wrath.
The word “reserved” has a wide range of meanings, and given the context of what Job is saying it seems better to understand it as “to be spared”. So Job is saying go ask people that are well traveled and have seen more of the world than you have. They will tell you, that the wicked man is spared from the day of destruction.
The phrase “brought forth” has the idea that the wicked will be delivered or rescued from the day of wrath.
So Job concludes that sometimes evil people get away with evil (30).
Job 21:31 KJV 1900
31 Who shall declare his way to his face? And who shall repay him what he hath done?
Because nobody is really able to do anything about it (31). Who shall repay him (the wicked) for what he has done?
Job 21:32–33 KJV 1900
32 Yet shall he be brought to the grave, And shall remain in the tomb. 33 The clods of the valley shall be sweet unto him, And every man shall draw after him, As there are innumerable before him.
And even in death the wicked receive an honorable burial, with an ancient version of ‘perpetual care,’ in an ideal location (32-33).
Job 21:34 KJV 1900
34 How then comfort ye me in vain, Seeing in your answers there remaineth falsehood?
Given the truth of Job’s argument, their attempts to comfort him are “empty nothings” and outright “falsehood.”

Final Application

Application: the Problems with retribution theology as noted by Edward Glenney (“How Well Do you Know God?,” Central Baptist Seminary Testimony 36 [Spring 1994]: 3-5).

1. “This doctrine makes God contingent on man and as a result He is no longer sovereign.”

Man would become the sovereign of his life. “I just have to find the right thing to do and I will succeed.”

2. “This theology makes God a biased judge.”

How much good must I do to gain blessing, how much bad must I do to earn judgment

3. “This theology destroys true faith and trust in God.

4. “It removes grace and produces a works mentality.”

Whatever good thing God gives me, is now credited to me.

5. People soon realize that they can sin and seemingly ‘get away with it.’

“Although on the surface retribution theology seems to provide a sense of accountability to God, it really does the opposite. “

6. “This doctrine becomes a reason to reject people who are hurting.

AKA- Karma

7. Additional confirmatory New Testament perspectives on retribution theology:

a) Hebrews 11:13-16.
Hebrews 11:13–16 KJV 1900
13 These all died in faith, not having received the promises, but having seen them afar off, and were persuaded of them, and embraced them, and confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth. 14 For they that say such things declare plainly that they seek a country. 15 And truly, if they had been mindful of that country from whence they came out, they might have had opportunity to have returned. 16 But now they desire a better country, that is, an heavenly: wherefore God is not ashamed to be called their God: for he hath prepared for them a city.
The reward is coming, but it might not be here- it is coming.
b) 2 Corinthians 11-12.
Paul and his sufferings (wrongly for the sake of the gospel)
2 Corinthians 11:24–27 KJV 1900
24 Of the Jews five times received I forty stripes save one. 25 Thrice was I beaten with rods, once was I stoned, thrice I suffered shipwreck, a night and a day I have been in the deep; 26 In journeyings often, in perils of waters, in perils of robbers, in perils by mine own countrymen, in perils by the heathen, in perils in the city, in perils in the wilderness, in perils in the sea, in perils among false brethren; 27 In weariness and painfulness, in watchings often, in hunger and thirst, in fastings often, in cold and nakedness.
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