A Response to the Gospel Coalition's Review of my Book

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Recently, the Gospel Coalition published a review of my book Healing the Gospel. The book offers a major critique of hyper-Calvinism and the violent and retributive image of God behind it, proposing instead that the gospel is rooted in the idea of God’s enemy love and restorative justice. So it will probably come as little surprise that they didn't care for the book much.

The review was written by Peter Gurry, a student at Dallas Theological Seminary. Peter begins by correctly identifying a central thesis of my book:
"That thesis, in brief, is 'restoration triumphs over retribution'—purportedly 'the central narrative of the New Testament'"(58). In other words, Flood doesn’t just argue that penal substitution is wrong, misguided, or unbiblical (though he claims all that); he argues that it’s antithetical to the true gospel because it promotes the very thing God saves us from—retributive justice"

He continues, correctly describing the harm that comes from our embracing retribution, which I outline in the book,
    "Retributive justice, as Flood sees it, is deeply harmful. It leads to a battery of heinous ills such as “beating children, torturing prisoners and heretics, etc.” and culminates in even more destructive views of God and ourselves (8). Believers and unbelievers alike are affected. Unbelievers wonder how being saved by a vindictive God could be good news, and believers suffer a crippling sense of self-loathing. The result is a “faith motivated by fear, threat, and feelings of worthlessness” (3)"

His critique begins by making a number of unsubstantiated assertions: Peter claims for example that there is no problem in simultaneously claiming that we die with Christ, and that Christ dies instead of us. He offers no explanation however of how that would be logically possible. Nor does he mention that while the NT frequently says Christ died “for us” and also frequently says that we die “with Christ,” it never once says Christ died instead of us. This is why many Pauline scholars have suggested that the language of "participation" is more reflective of what Paul was expressing than the traditional Reform language of "substitution" is.

Similarly, Peter rejects several readings of Scripture that I outline in the book, but offers no arguments as to why they should be rejected other than to simply declare them "untenable." Considering that the arguments I make in the book are based on work done by some pretty major biblical scholars (James Dunn, Michael Gorman, Morna Hooker, to name a few), I hardly think that one can simply dismiss them out of hand as "untenable."

I make the case in my book that viewing sin strictly from a legal lens has led to a profoundly deficient understanding of sin that in fact trivializes the problem and offers no real cure, and in fact adds to the hurt. It is a view of sin that is out of step with everything we have learned over the last century about mental health, and out of step with the NT.

Peter completely ignores all that his review, and simply makes the unsubstantiated claim that there is no problem with viewing sin as crime. But there is in fact a huge problem. If I get a speeding ticket, that works pretty well at deterring me from speeding. So in cases like this, it seems to work fine. But our prison system has an enormously high rate of repeat offenders, and an alarming amount of people in prison are mentally ill or addicts. What we are increasingly finding is that punitive measures do not lead to their reform, they make them worse. In contrast, restorative programs have had great success at reducing violence in prison and bringing about actual rehabilitation (no repeat offenses). In addition to that, restorative programs also help the victims of crime to heal. Punitive programs do nothing to restore victims.

It’s important to also make clear that Peter does not think that retributive justice should have the function of restoring (or deterring for that matter). He thinks that the purpose should be to inflict hurt for hurt. When he says retribution, he really means it. We need to keep that in mind when he speaks about the "vertical aspect" that is allegedly missing in my book. What is missing is the idea that God must punish sin, and that God cannot simply heal it. In other words, in his view, even if God could heal us and make us loving, good, and holy in Christ, Peter thinks that would not be enough. Even if God could mend the hurt done by our sin to ourselves and others, that would not be enough. God (according to Peter) demands blood, demands hurt. I think that is a view of God that is completely out of step with the New Testament, and deeply troubling.

This brings us to Peter’s biggest objection which is that he feels I focus too much on the "horizontal" impact of sin—how it harms us—and not enough on the "vertical" aspect of how it offends God:

    "[N]ot once does he angle his definition of sin vertically. He does not mention that the first commandment is always the first to be broken. He does not follow Joseph's or David’s concern that sin is fundamentally against God ... Because Flood provides no antidote to our idolatry, his cure turns out to be worse than his diagnosis. Much better to know that in Christ God has not only cured our idol-loving hearts, but he has publicly punished them, too."

In response I would say that this is simply not true. I do focus on the vertical aspect of sin, but the focus is God-down-to-us rather than us-up-to-God. In other words: God is not the one with the problem, we are. That's why God comes to us, while we were yet sinners, while we were God's enemies, and first loved us. Jesus continually draws our attention to how we treat others as a reflection of how we love God. "As you have done it unto the least of these, you have done it unto me" Jesus tells us. When David says in Psalm 51 "Against you only, Lord, have I sinned" he is saying the same thing as Jesus. As the king he had thought that he could do whatever he wanted, and so he raped Bathsheba, and then had her husband killed. But now David has realized that in sinning against these powerless subjects of his, he had in fact sinned against the king of kings. The point here is not to say that God doesn't care about what David has done to that poor couple, and instead wanted to have all the attention. The whole point is that God wants us to care about the least, to care about each other. Vertical sin is inseparably connected to horizontal sin.

So if by a vertical focus we mean the notion that God is somehow “offended,” and needs to be mollified by us—that God can't love us until “satisfied” by violent punishment, then yes I do reject that idea. God is not some insecure monarch demanding his pound of flesh. God is the one who comes to us in Jesus, seeking reconciliation. God is not the one with the problem, we are. God does not need to be changed, we do. God does not need to be turned around (=repenting), we do.

If however a vertical focus means that we need to center our lives around God revealed in Christ, then this is in fact something I discuss at great length in the book. I see it as absolutely essential because it is through living with Jesus as our bottom line, as our Lord, and indeed as our friend in an intimate and growing relationship that we learn to love others just as Christ did. This is the "antidote to idolatry" Peter is looking for, found in a loving and transformative relationship with God. That vertical relationship with God naturally flows into our horizontal relationships with others because when we have truly experienced what it is like to be unconditionally loved by God, not based on our goodness, but based on God’s goodness, how can we help but want to treat others with that same grace and mercy we have known? This is not a heaven-ward focus, because a focus on God in Christ calls us not to look up, but to look down to the least. That's where we find Christ.

So the claim made here that I do not have a vertical focus is simply not true. On the contrary, I have a clear "vertical focus" in the book, but it is one focused on a loving and good God showing us enemy love and grace, rather than on an angry God demanding punishment in order to be mollified. That latter view sounds more like a primitive volcano god, and not like God revealed in Jesus Christ.

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At 11:29 AM, Blogger Peter Gurry said...


I don't want this to turn into a back-and-forth on your blog. Folks can read the book, read my review, and decide for themselves. That said, there are a couple points that need clarification or correction, in no particular order.

First, where is this vertical dimension explained in your book? As you know, we corresponded via email and you've written about this on your blog. But my review was of your book not your blog or our emails. So I'm not trying to misrepresent your views, just trying to keep my review a review of the book itself.

Second, the NT does say that Christ died "instead of us" in Mark 10:45 and Matthew 10:28. As Dan Wallace concludes in his standard grammar, "The evidence appears to be overwhelmingly in favor of viewing αντι [anti] in Matt 20:28/Mark 10:45 as meaning in the place of,... while the evidence for it meaning simply the vague idea of on behalf of is suspect at best." (Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics, 367). As for the logical problem, surely Christ can die as a penalty for our sin while we die to the continued influence of sin in our lives. You may not like the former, but where's the logical contradiction?

Third, a book review doesn't provide space for detailed exegesis. I did, however, discuss Rom 3 a bit. That should count as substantiation—or at least an attempt at it—I should think. And there are (of course!) other major biblical scholars who disagree with those you cite, such as Doug Moo, Frank Thielman, N.T. Wright, Thomas Schreiner, Mark Siefrid, C. E. B. Cranfield, etc., etc. But who wants to count scholarly noses, especially in a book review? That said, I'd be happy in another forum to look at some key texts in detail.

Fourth, I don't know any Reformed theologian who views sin exclusively in terms legal notions. Can you name some who deny that sin is also something that enslaves us? That would be helpful if you could. In any case, your medical version of sin leaves out the prominent role of sin as a legal debt that pervades the NT and even the early church. Christ, after all, taught us to pray "forgive us our debts" not "forgive us our hurts." For more on this, I recommend Gary Anderson's well-received and well-researched book, Sin: A History.


At 11:30 AM, Blogger Peter Gurry said...

(Continued... sorry!)

Fifth, I do not deny the value of other models of justice (restorative and deterrent). I deny that they were active in Christ's substitionary death. After all, Christ did not need to be restored or deterred from sin! Yet he became "sin for us" (2 Cor 5:21). I think you're arguing against a view I don't hold. Furthermore, you seem to be confused about the meaning of the various forms of justice. Of course punitive measures don't lead to reform. Shoes make for bad gloves too, but that's no slight on shoes. So, of course I don't think retributive justice should reform. That's simply a matter of definition. Do I think sinners need to be healed and that such healing is an expression of God's righteousness? Absolutely! Your rejection of God's use of retributive justice is troubled by a misunderstanding of it, I think. Oliver Crisp's article is a great place to start. On this same note, it's worth remembering that retributive justice is not the only kind that's subject to abuse, as Crisp illustrates well. Without the notion of "fitness" that's unique to retributive justice, there's nothing wrong with giving a shut-in a speeding ticket for your fast driving so long as it deters others from doing speeding (deterrent) or so long as it brings about repentance in those who got away with such speeding (restorative).

Sixth, affirming retributive justice is not the same thing as being bloodthirsty or sadistic. I grant that you don't accept this distinction. But please try to present my (and others') view fairly. Saying that God must forgive sin justly by punishing it (as I do) is not the same as saying that God "demands hurt." The word "hurt" is too vague and has too many misleading connotations. What God demands is justice when a wrong has been committed. Such a demand honors both the victim and the perpetrator by recognizing the value of the former and the responsibility of the latter. God does mend the hurt done by our sin. He also honors his place as Creator and our place as responsible creatures by punishing sin rather than only healing its collateral damage—though he does that too.

Finally, I'm still struggling to see a real vertical dimension in your view of sin. It seems to me that the "badness" of sin is still derived ultimately from the harm it does to people rather than the offense it is against God. So long as sin derives its gravity, in some part, from the importance of the one sinned against, a horizontal view of sin will always lead to a reduction of sin's gravity and therefore a reduction of salvation's glory. For more on this, I recommend Emil Brunner's chapter in The Mediator.

Sorry to make this so long. But I think it's important that we understand the issues accurately if we're going to have a good discussion on these important issues.


At 9:18 PM, Anonymous Derek said...

What I said above about a Christ-centered loving relationship with God being the center-point of our faith is derived directly from my book. This vertical focus is central to how sin and salvation are presented there. Looking up "relationship with God" in the subject index and you will find many references where I discuss this at length.

If you maintain the idea that God is "offended" and therefore needs to be appeased, then you are correct that I do not share this view. As I argue in the book, this is more reflective of Anselm’s feudal system, and quite foreign to Jesus who is not concerned with getting “honor” but rather had come to reveal God’s heart in being the “servant of all.” As I discuss in the book, that worldly system of honor and retribution has had profoundly harmful ethical consequences that has done considerable harm to people over the centuries. I believe that as followers of Christ we are to defend those who are being hurt by the worldly system of power embodied in the way of retributive justice, and to be mindful of not being “of” that that world system, defending and maintaining it by giving it religious justification. How we treat the “least of these,” those who are hurt by the system of power, is how God considers himself treated. That is where the horizontal becomes the vertical, just as in the incarnation the vertical became the horizontal.

At 7:30 AM, Blogger Peter Gurry said...

Derek, in rejecting retributive justice on principle, you stand in direct contradiction to the Biblical witness which predicates our personal rejection of retaliation on God's rightful use of retributive justice. You simply cannot escape the clear logic of passages like Rom 12:19 which says, "Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: 'It is mine to avenge; I will repay,' says the Lord." Your rejection also flies in the face of Jesus' own example, an example we are explicitly told to follow in 1 Peter. "When they hurled their insults at [Jesus], he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly" (1 Pet 2:23). Your view simply can't make sense of these texts.

What is sad to me is that you are rejecting the most explicit reason Scripture actually gives us for non-retaliation. And in doing so, I fear that, if taken seriously, your view will actually foster violence in those most seriously wronged. That would be a terrible tragedy. As Miroslav Volf powerfully argues, "...it takes the quiet of a suburban home for the birth of the thesis that human nonviolence corresponds to God's refusal to judge" (Exclusion and Embrace).

I know the texts above are deeply upsetting to you because you fear that many will (and have) used them to justify violent abuse. I agree this is a real danger. But what I find more troubling is that your own theology is so devoid of the most potent safeguard against such abuse. To quote Volf again, "There is a duty prior to the duty of imitating God, and that is the duty of not wanting to be God, of letting God be God and humans be humans." If you would embrace a robust understanding of sin as idolatry, you would have ample reason to reject and rebuke the all-too-real abuses you see of retributive justice. As it is, I find that your view sputters right at the point you think it soars so powerfully.

I would plead with you (and your readers) to carefully consider Volf's final chapter of Exclusion and Embrace as it provides a serious challenge to your particular route to non-violence. If he is right, then it is not finally the affirmation of retributive justice that does harm to the weakest among us, it is your own view.

Again, I apologize for taking up so much space here. But as you can see, I am as passionate about protecting the weak as you are, which is why I am so troubled by your major thesis. We want the same goal, it seems, we just have very different ways of getting there. We both want to get to Nineveh but we each think the other is heading to Tarshish.

At 10:30 AM, Anonymous Derek said...


I appreciate that you are seeking to deal with the problem of violence and retribution, and that you are willing to engage in a dialog about it. However, I do not believe that your presentation is factually accurate. There is zero evidence that a person's rejection of the validity of retribution and their embracing of restorative justice has ever lead to violence as you propose, and a great deal of empirical evidence that the opposite is the case. What is at issue is that we need to find ways of actually dealing with the hurt and resentment in us, ways of healing the harm done to victims, and that way is the way of restorative justice. Again, there is ample evidence that restorative justice is deeply effective in this. The problem is when people feel that they have no alternative to violence. Restorative justice provides that alternative.

I therefore do not find Volf's position in E&E compelling at all, and in fact it strikes me as being quite naieve to how human dynamics and psychology actually work. I also know that Volf has since moved away from that position himself. It is perhaps a starting point to take comfort in God killing someone you hate so you don't need to. That is the starting point we find in Romans. However, that cannot be where we stop. If we really want to continue in the way that Paul lays out in Romans 12 then we will actively love our enemies and seek their good. Our healing needs to take place, and that is the path of forgiveness. After all, if I am counting on God killing (or tormenting forever in hell) my enemy, but my enemy comes to Christ because of me loving my enemies and blessing those who persecute me, then they will not experience the punishment from God that I long for them to. They will experience God's love and grace. So if I am holding on to the need for God to hurt them, this will tear me in half when God instead loves them. That is the story of Javier in Les Miserables who simply can't accept that Jean Val Jean has turned around and so takes his own life. Paul is not calling on us to harbor a desire for God's retribution, he is calling us to enemy love. That way of enemy love is not just our way, it is God's way too.

I appreciate you saying that we have the same goal, but from our previous conversions I question whether that is in fact translates into you supporting nonviolence. You have told me that while you reject personal vengeance, you are in support of state sponsored vengeance and retaliatory violence, meaning you are in support of the death penalty. It would not surprise me to find that you are also pro-war or that you were in support of corporal punishment of children. We see all of these positions being defended by the folks from the Gospel Coalition, and argued because of their understanding of the legitimacy of retributive justice which they find in their reading of the Bible.

So while you claim that an affirmation of God's retribution is a deterrent to violence, it in fact at best would only deter personal violence, while on the other hand causing one to actively defend, and in fact insist on the legitimacy and necessity of state sponsored violence. This is the position I have heard you argue, as well as the position I have heard others from the Gospel Coalition argue (for example John Piper). Consequently, retributive justice and acts of humans killing other humans are not at all deterred by this position. On the contrary, they are boldly defended and insisted on in God's name. These are not hypotheticals, they are actual policies that are being supported by conservative ministers from the pulpit. So as you say, we both advocate protecting the weak. The question is whether the best way to do that is through violent retaliation, or whether restorative justice offers a better way to heal our world.

At 1:03 PM, Blogger Peter Gurry said...

Derek, you are still refusing to distinguish retributive justice from it's abuses. Can't you at least try to represent your oponents' view as it's actually presented? Also, what do you do with texts like Rom 12:19; 1 Pet 2:23; 2 Thess 1:6; and Rev 6:10? Do these text not count because they don't fit?

In any case, I simply don't share your assumption that retributive justice and love are mutually exclusive. The choice between God saving my personal enemies and God punishing their sin is, of course, a false one. When God saves people he does both. That's the whole point of penal substitution! So, when I love my enemies, I long for God to save them and to take their sin (and thus them) seriously by absorbing the rightful punishment for it himself. What could be more amazing than that? My love for my enemies is freed to soar to unbounded heights, not because I can't wait to see them "get theirs", but because I have no reason to doubt that the judge of all the earth will do right--whether in their repentance or their judgment. Your own view gives me no such freedom. Love becomes cheap sentimentality and those who have been deeply wronged are left further harmed by telling them that the wrong done to them has no measurable value. And yes, that view can and does lead people to take matters violently into their own hands.

A couple of examples come to mind. In the world of non-fiction, John Grisham's A Time to Kill is an especially poweful illustration. Seeing the real possibility of his daughter's rapists getting off free, the father shoots her rapists. Retributive justice denied led to violence.

A real-life example comes in the (almost) commical occupation of Paul Watson. Watson is known from his reality TV show “Whale Wars” on Animal Planet where he and his crew sail the Japanese seas interfering with illegal whaling vessels. He and his crew resort to all sorts of trouble in an effort to stop them. He denies the charge from the Japanese officials of being a terrorist and prefers to call his method “aggressive non-violence.” And says, “If property is used to break the law, we can destroy it.” And why does this rogue vigilante do it? Quite simply, because justice is not enforced. “When the law isn’t doing the job, that’s when we need to intervene,” he said.

The validity of Watson's complaint is certainly questionable, but the point is obvious. When justice is aborted, people will take matters into their own hands. When the wrong is real, their desire for justice is not wrong. When a father's daugher has been brutally raped, it would be deeply hurtful to tell him that his is being a bloodthirsty sinner for wanting justice.

There is a better way. As Christians we certainly want more than mere retributive justice, as you rightly argue. But we never want less.

Hope this helps clarify some. Thanks again for being willing to converse charitably about a topic so important and obviously personal. That means a lot.

At 2:15 PM, Anonymous Derek said...

So does that mean that you are indeed affirming the validity of capitol punishment in the name of retributive justice? Again, if that is the case, then your position does not deter violence, it validates it.

Perhaps for some who can only think in terms of retribution, they need to have retribution come from the state in order not to resort to violence themselves. But then that is a person who has not rejected retribution at all, they have merely suppressed it. As in Grisham's book, this results in tragedy. Others of us have rejected it because we have found a better way that really does bring about justice by making things right. You should also be aware of their stories. I would strongly encourage you to read Howard Zehr's book "Changing Lenses."

The issue is that you apparently cannot conceive of how there can be justice without punishment, how there can be forgiveness without retribution. There is a way to find real healing, real restoration, real justice that does not involve violent payback Peter. This is not about sentimentality or denying justice, but it is about a new understanding of what justice means. It is justice in the form of making things right, and not in the form of retributive violence. I hope that you would open your heart to learning about these possibilities.

p.s. You are referring to Grisham's 1st novel. Grisham now believes that the death penalty should be abolished, and believes this because of his Christian faith. He makes the case for this in his book The Confession. You might want to read up on this if you are fan of his work.

At 3:23 PM, Blogger Peter Gurry said...

I can't say I'm a big fan of Grisham, but I was aware of his view on capital punishment. The issue is a bit tangential to my concerns though. One can easily reject capital punishment and consistently affirm retributive justice at the same time.

As a closing request, might I ask that in the future you please not represent proponents of retributive justice as bloodthirsty, violent-loving fiends? Many of us are sincerely convinced that, in a world of real evil, such a notion of justice is really, really good and that it uniquely honors God and humans made in his image.

P.S. I ordered the book and will give it a fair shake. And you should get a copy of Crisp's article on divine retribution.


At 4:29 PM, Anonymous Derek said...

Yes Peter, while we disagree significantly on many important issues, I fully recognize that your motivation is one of caring about justice and seeking the good. I attempt to acknowledge this shared desire in my book where I write,

"On both sides of this debate are people who deeply care about people’s welfare: On the one hand, we have those who say it would be immoral to simply stand by when others are being attacked. We need to defend our families, our homes. If we care about people, and want to avoid bloodshed, then a policy of “turning the other cheek” seems irresponsible if that means a country should do nothing when its people are being killed. Pacifism should not mean passivity. On the other hand, we have those who have seen the devastation of war. They have seen violence spiral into an endless cycle of retaliation, and they just want it to stop.

The question then becomes: how can we address both of these legitimate concerns? How can we protect life, and reverse the dynamics of violence rather than participating in it? What are steps we can actively take to reduce violence in our world? In other words, rather than debating whether or not it is ever acceptable to participate in violence (where the only two choices seem to be either bloodshed or inaction) perhaps what we need to be asking instead is what can we do to reduce violence?"

At 4:35 PM, Blogger Josh said...

"As Christians we certainly want more than mere retributive justice, as you rightly argue. But we never want less."

Please don't speak for all of us, Peter. I doubt that Volf would write what you have written. He has recently made clear that he opposes capital punishment on his Facebook page. See: http://www.postyesterdaychurch.blogspot.com/2012/09/volfs-values-for-voting-3.html.

Volf's provocative argument about Paul's rationale for encouraging Christians to leave vengeance to God stops short of affirming the desire for retribution. Volf's personal experience with war tells him that people who have been terribly wronged will desire retribution; but it does not follow that they should desire retribution. In any case, Volf interprets Paul as trying to temper this desire; the argument is meant to deter violent retribution. What God does (or does not do) in the future is up to God.

At 8:05 PM, Blogger Peter Gurry said...

Josh, Paul says God will repay not that he might (Rom 12:19; cf. 2 Thess 1:6). That's Paul talking, not me. And again, capital punishment is neither here nor there so far God's way of forgiving is concerned. And I didn't mean to speak for anyone. I meant Christian should want... given what the Bible teaches. Sorry if it came across that way.

Derek, thanks for that reminder. That particular quote, however, is in the context of international conflict (91)—an important issue, to be sure, but not really my concern here. I was thinking in terms of how you represent retributive justice in the context of the atonement. Is there somewhere in the book where you flesh out why God requires punishment in a penal substitutionary model? My concern is that the average reader will never find himself thinking, "Retributive justice really is bad. But I can sort of see why someone might think it's actually good." Instead, I think the average reader will walk away thinking that the only reason someone might endorse penal substitution is because of the "devastation done to their souls through self-loathing masquerading as piety," as you so vividly describe Luther, Bunyan, and Wesley (4). Good grief, who wants to be part of that charming crowd?

At 6:51 AM, Blogger Auggybendoggy said...

Peter, I appreciate your taking the time to dialogue with Derek and your kindness. I'm one who believes retributive justice is restorative. Retribution as I've argued is only to "pay back" and I see no need to import a good or bad connotation. The good or bad result is up to the intention.

Simply because man is evil and thus retribution can be abusive, does not mean retribution is abusive - like the shoes as gloves. If payback is done with the purpose of restoring someone then I say such retribution is good. Really it's a matter of definition.

I'd like to ask both of you regarding my feelings on the commands to turn the cheek or to give up the coat.

I've felt for a good number of years now that Jesus' command to turn the other cheek is not intended at a governmental level. If Best Buy's or Walmart's were commanded to give up all their Televisions when a robber comes into the store, they could not stay in business. If they refuse to give up their coat (televisions) then they are not doing what Jesus commanded to show love. What we'd have is a total destruction of the system. So if that's true, why would the command to turn the other cheek apply to the government but not giving up the coat?

It seems to me in other words that there are different expectations for the government as opposed to individuals.

My thoughts just don't stop there. If the govt. gives someone life in prison for commiting a crime - is that retribution? It might not be an eye for an eye but it's not exactly turning the other cheek? So what level of retribution is permissible while upholding the command to turn the other cheek?

At 9:20 AM, Anonymous Derek said...

Auggie (Gene),

Well, first of all I do not agree with your understanding of restorative retribution. I have discussed this at length elsewhere, so I wont repeat that here.

With the question of turning the other cheek, I do not think the issue is that we should a follow the teachings of Jesus in our personal lives but they do not apply on a societal level (governmental, corporate, etc.). That would mean that Jesus should be Lord in our private lives, but not be Lord over how we run our society. I think he should be Lord over all of life.

The issue, I would say, is that you are applying "turning the other cheek" in a way that would not only be wrong for a corporation or government institution, but equally wrong for an individual because in each case it would ignore wrongdoing. The purpose of turning the other cheek is to expose wrongdoing and restore the dignity of the victim.

In order to correctly apply this we need to first understand its function in the specific situation, then figure out how that principle should be applied in other situations using means appropriate to that situation. I discuss this in the last chapter of my book.

At 9:50 AM, Anonymous Derek said...


I think the quote above is directly applicable. But perhaps this quote will be helpful as well,

"It takes being broken by forgiveness to understand the cross. Without that, forgiveness seems to fly in the face of our natural understanding of justice. When I feel wronged I struggle with wanting payback. I smolder with self-righteous indignity. I feel I must defend my rights, not let any infraction go unpunished. Seeing this in myself, I understand how instinctual our need for retributive justice is, and why we are so drawn to it when we face injustice and pain. That is why basing our understanding of the atonement in the idea of payback justice is so dangerous—it is all too easy to focus on our own fleshly desire to condemn, and not on God’s desire to show grace revealed in Christ. It is all too easy to become advocates of retribution, rather than advocates of God’s radical way of the cross. Like Peter, forbidding Christ to go to the cross (Matt 16:22), we think we are defending God’s holiness and justice, when really we are standing opposed to God’s costly way of grace revealed in Christ."

Flood, Derek. Healing the Gospel: A Radical Vision for Grace, Justice, and the Cross (Kindle Locations 2347-2354). Cascade Books, an Imprint of Wipf and Stock Publishers.

At 2:22 PM, Blogger Josh said...


True, Paul quotes an OT text (Deuteronomy 32:35) that says, "[God] will repay" (Romans 12:19); what this repayment will look like is up to God--perhaps it will look like the destruction of the cosmic forces of evil (our true enemies) rather than violence against flesh and blood, as Paul suggests in Ephesians 6:12. My point is simply that Volf interprets Paul as seeking to discourage retribution; therefore, your claim that Volf's work supports your fondness for retribution is dubious.

At 5:05 PM, Anonymous Derek said...

"Again, capital punishment is neither here nor there so far God's way of forgiving is concerned."

Actually I think it is critically important because it has everything to do with how we apply the principle of retributive justice if we think forgiveness cannot happen without it. So if you want to make the claim that God can be retributive because God is God and we are not, then you would need to consequently renounce capitol punishment and other forms of retributive violence.

However, what actually happens is that those who support retributive justice are among the most outspoken advocates for things like capitol punishment, war, torture, corporal punishment of children, and so on. They are also the very people arguing against restorative justice and prison reform. I have heard you make exactly these arguments in the past. I have also seen these kinds of positions being upheld all over the Gospel Coalition website.

As long as that is the case, you simply cannot claim that a belief in retributive punishment deters violence, because it rather undeniably promotes it on an institutional level.

Let's be clear: This has nothing to do with "abuses" it has to do with what is upheld as a "necessity" of justice. This also is not about negative consequences (such as a fine). At issue is intentionally doing things intended to cause suffering or death. That matters tremendously.

It is of course much easier to make the case for retribution when we do not really think about the consequences, just as bombing a children's hospital does not sound as bad when the military calls it "collateral damage," but that is precisely the problem with detached theology of glory. Theology only matters if we look at how it impacts people. As Luther says, "The theology of the cross calls things as they really are."

At 6:34 PM, Blogger Peter Gurry said...

Derek, I give up, man. I'm sorry. Your quote above is just the kind of thing I'm asking you to avoid. I don't recognize my view in there anywhere. Retributive justice is not about feeling wronged. It's about objective wrong. It's not about personal rights. It's about honoring God as God and humans as responsible beings made in his image. And it's certainly not self-righteous indignity.

If you can't understand your opposition on its own terms and represent it fairly, then you probably shouldn't be critiquing it. When you can do that, I'd be happy to pick the conversation up again. Until then, I'm just spinning my wheels in monologue.

Auggybendoggy, those are good thoughts. And I agree that Jesus' words are intended for interpersonal relations, not geo-political. (As a side note, I've never seen a pacifist willing to absolutize Matt 5:39a the way they often do the next few verses. See R.T. France's little commentary on Matthew at this point.) And, of course, it's not limiting Jesus' lordship to apply his words as he intended them to be applied. And yes, the same action is often both retributive and restorative. But not always for the same agent. That's where things get a bit trickier. But in general, I think your seeing that the passionately-proposed choice between the two kinds of justice is false one.

At 7:54 PM, Anonymous Derek said...


You are correct that I cannot know your own motivations for why you like retribution so much. I don’t think anyone can guess someone’s motivations. That is however not my goal as a theologian. Instead, what I seek to do is evaluate ideas, and the consequences they have in our lives. This is not based on guessing a person’s motivations (which again no one can do), but rather on objective observation.

In my book I look at the effects that the way of retribution has had on people are--both in terms of how it damages people’s faith, and in terms of how it has lead to horrible consequences historically on a societal level (i.e. the fact that it has been used to justify horrific harm being done to people for centuries, and still is today). Again, health professionals, social scientists, and educators are pretty much unanimous on agreeing with this latter point.

So regardless of what your motivation may or may not be, and regardless of what your theory may be about what “justice” ought look like, these are the actual objective observable fruits of retributive violence. My argument is based on looking at those facts, and then asking whether there might be a better way.

That better way, I propose, is found in the New Testament. So I try and show a way of reading the NT that is focused on grace, rather than a way that justifies violence.

I have appreciated your willingness to dialog, but at this point I think we both have made our two respective positions clear. So I’m not sure there is much more that can be said, and we need to trust our readers to evaluate what we have both said and draw their own conclusions.

At 8:25 AM, Blogger Auggybendoggy said...

That's my caveat. I'm uncertain it's proper to pit retribution against justice. Recently I've been reading that this debate exists amongst lawyers as well. And one in particular seemed to have the same opinions that definitions are important.

As an example, I don't understand how Derek goes from retributive justice to "retributive violence" as expressed in his last response. For me that's a problematic switch which makes the discussion difficult. You might say I think the truth might lie somewhere in the middle.

But it might just be a definitional difference between he and I.

I also agree that the political parameters God sets up are different without there being a violation of Jesus' lordship. I do believe we at a personal level can even not turn the other cheek and be in compliance with Jesus - to do justice and do what is right. But I agree with Derek, due to the nature of love, it's always for restoration - even when we perceive it's not.

Derek, what book would you recommend for me to get a better grasp of what it means to turn the other cheek. I think I am operating from a misunderstanding. If this book does that then I need to buy it quick :)

Blessings to you both.

At 8:32 AM, Anonymous Jordan said...

I think turning the other cheek is applicable to geo political scenarios, but you have to read it for what its actually trying to say. The dominant person strikes the lesser person with their powerful hand- their right hand-across the left cheek. By turning the other cheek, they must use their left hand, the weak hand, and "wind" up for it, while seeing you there waiting for it. Its a humanizing move, showing how unjust the action is. Its an aggressive non-violent move.

At 10:55 AM, Anonymous Derek said...

I think Jordan gets it exactly right. He's echoing Walter Wink who gives this interpretation in his book "Engaging the Powers." It's a fantastic book.

I also deal with this understanding in my own book, primarily in the last chapter "Love of Enemies" which is focused on this theme, but also in the chapter on the Suffering Servant where I discuss what it means for us to follow in that way as Paul urges us to do in Philippians.

At issue here is how to avoid having "turning the other cheek" become a way of excusing abuse (for example many women have been counseled to stay in abusive relationships appealing to this principle). As Jordan says above, the intent is not to passively accept hurt, but to act in a way that we "overcome evil with good."

I think once we understand how to live this out in our private lives, it becomes much more apparent how this can equally apply on an international scale.

I'd also say that perhaps the biggest reason people do not understand the cross is that they do not understand what it means to walk in enemy love. The only way we can really begin to truly comprehend the cross of Christ is when we learn to pick up our own cross and follow.

At 9:43 AM, Anonymous Jordan said...

Yep, good catch! Haha, when I wrote that I was blanking on the source!

I would add to the danger of excusing abuse, is the danger of being the oppressor, being part of oppressive structures, etc. Given the way our economies in "the west" are set up, its hard to escape. For example, this computer I'm using is made of materials from Africa, which rely on essentially slave labor in their mining, which are then shipped to China to be manufactured in poor working conditions with poor compensation, and so on.

Now, assuming we are responsible, but perhaps not guilty ("if all are guilty, none are" according to Hannah Arendt with regard to Germans and the holocaust), what kind of justice will make things right? Will punishment fix things? Or would some sort of change have to take place in the way we act, to restore relationships from the unidirectional, top down way they operate now? We might have to die to some things we take for granted (a lot of things). Now, maybe both views of justice are not really opposed like that. I keep getting stuck as I try to think a little further along, so I'll leave it there...

if this seems too rooted in economic/political/ethical considerations, I would respond that, well, I see a lot of the stories of Jesus dealing with those things...the spiritual reality is right there in our relation to others.

Pushback so I can keep thinking it through

At 7:03 AM, Blogger ofgrace said...

Thanks, Derek for continuing to defend your view. The whole debate with folks like Peter only proves this point made in the fifth century by St. Vincent of Lerins, who writes:

"But here some one perhaps will ask, Since the canon of Scripture is complete, and sufficient of itself for everything, and more than sufficient, what need is there to join with it the authority of the Church's interpretation? For this reason,—because, owing to the depth of Holy Scripture, all do not accept it in one and the same sense, but one understands its words in one way, another in another; so that it seems to be capable of as many interpretations as there are interpreters. For Novatian expounds it one way, Sabellius another, Donatus another, Arius, Eunomius, Macedonius, another, Photinus, Apollinaris, Priscillian, another, Iovinian, Pelagius, Celestius, another, lastly, Nestorius another. Therefore, it is very necessary, on account of so great intricacies of such various error, that the rule for the right understanding of the prophets and apostles should be framed in accordance with the standard of Ecclesiastical and Catholic interpretation.

"Moreover, in the Catholic Church itself, all possible care must be taken, that we hold that faith which has been believed everywhere, always, by all. For that is truly and in the strictest sense "Catholic," which, as the name itself and the reason of the thing declare, comprehends all universally. This rule we shall observe if we follow universality, antiquity, consent. We shall follow universality if we confess that one faith to be true, which the whole Church throughout the world confesses; antiquity, if we in no wise depart from those interpretations which it is manifest were notoriously held by our holy ancestors and fathers; consent, in like manner, if in antiquity itself we adhere to the consentient definitions and determinations of all, or at the least of almost all priests and doctors.

(taken from here: http://orthodoxinfo.com/inquirers/vincent.aspx)

Accordingly, Eastern Orthodox theologian, Georges Florovsky also writes:

"It is not enough to be acquainted with the texts and to know how to draw from them quotes and arguments. One must possess the theology of the Fathers from within. Intuition is perhaps more important for this than erudition, for intuition alone revives their writings and makes them a witness. It is only from within that we can perceive and distinguish what (actually) is a catholic testimony from what would be merely theological opinion, hypothesis, interpretation, or theory... Only in the integral communion of the Church is this 'catholic transfiguration' of consciousness truly possible. Those who, by reason of their humility in the presence of the Truth, have received the gift to express this catholic consciousness of the Church, we call them Fathers and Doctors, since what they make us hear is not only their thought or their personal conviction, but moreover the very witness of the Chruch, for they speak from the depth of its catholic fullness. Their theology evolves on the plane of catholicity, of universal communion."

—Fr. Georges Florovsky, "The Ways of Russian Theology" in The Collected Works of Georges Florovsky, Vol. IV, Aspects of Church History (Belmont, MA: Nordland, 1987), pp. 191, 192

I will just say that never at any time has the Eastern Orthodox Church understood the substitutionary death of Christ in the manner of the Reformers' and modern Evangelicals' "*Penal* Substitution," that Peter is defending. Rather, it rightly understands this historically relatively recent theory of Scriptures' meaning as heretical and blasphemous.

Derek, it seems to me you are on the right road. I have found the Eastern Orthodox communion to be the true and natural home of the gospel you profess, where the early Fathers of the Church are understood in their right context and still honored as having "rightly divided" the word of truth in the consensus of their teaching.

At 8:27 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

As a former Calvinist I cannot wait to get a copy of this book. I have read your articles on your blog and if the book is as good as the articles then I will be satisfied. As to asking the question why Christ had to die. I think that is an issue of the problem of evil and suffering. Why did it have to be done THAT way? All I really need to know in dealing with the problem of evil and suffering is that God had morally justifiable reasons for creating a world that now contains evil and suffering even if I don't know what those reasons are. I'm not all-knowing or infinite in wisdom and I can not see all of reality like He does. To say that God could have done it otherwise assumes that the physical laws are not based on any kind of mathematical necessity. But that's hardly the case since the physical laws are based on basic symmetries. Since the laws are based on mathematical necessity then God can't make basic symmetries to be false. For He is a God of truth as well. He cannot lie or go contrary to His own nature. It seems that God would have set up these physical laws for a universe to naturally emerge. His spiritual laws would likewise be in place for a spiritual universe to emerge as an extension of this process. As I said above, God can't make a lie a truth, so metaphysical necessity (e.g., truths of symmetry) don't do away with God's ability to make responsible choices either. He simply cannot go contrary to His own nature. As long as God can choose to meet His divine objectives within whatever constraints he must work within, then His will is not frozen. He is also omnipotent if we look at omnipotence in a narrow sense in that there is no external agency that can prevent him from achieving his goals. Omnipotence doesn't have to mean that God can do the logically impossible, broadly logically impossible, or go contrary to His own nature.

At 8:19 AM, Anonymous Derek said...

Great thoughts Cole!

At 8:18 AM, Blogger Maris Mols said...

Let's say Bob breaks John's leg to hurt him. What would be objective justice in this case? Probably to break Bob's leg. The question is - who benefits from breaking Bob's leg. Is it John? Not really, his leg is already broken and hurting somebody else is not really helping. Would God benefit? I don't see how. Probably Robert would benefit, because he has always wanted to break somebody's leg, but now he sees that he will get retribution. Even thou he still cherishes the idea of breaking somebodies leg, he will never do it. That means Robert will live in fear of retribution. This is definitely not heaven.

At 8:36 PM, Anonymous Wes Gerrans said...

Derek, since I am a “Johnny come lately” to this discussion, I hope you will not mind me expressing my thoughts. I have not read your book, but after reading the reviews I have ordered a copy and look forward to reading it. Since I find myself agreeing with you more often than not, this post on your blog may be seen as pointless, but hopefully it addresses issues from a slightly different perspective. I want to thank especially you, Peter and others for this candid discussion of what I feel is a very important topic. I apologize for the length of my response.

Re. Peters first entry, second point on Matt.20:28 & Mk.10:45. These texts speak of Christ giving his life “as a ransom”. Penal substitution would say the ransom was paid to God so that He could forgive It might be helpful to examine the word used here for “life”, psuche. as contrasted with the other Greek word for life, zoe. Zoe, is mere physical vitality, psuche, also has the implication of the various elements of existence that make one who he is. It seems clear to me that Christ gave himself (psuche) rather than just life (zoe). The word “anti”, however modifies the word ransom rather than the word life. (“Theological Dictionary of New Testament Words” by V. D. Verbrugge Pg137) Therefore Christ gave Himself, with all that this implies, as a ransom instead of whatever else might be given as ransom. It could be argued, as many includingVerbrugge do, that this means a life instead of many lives but this appears to me to be an interpretation that goes beyond what is actually stated. Peter in his comments equates “ransom” with “penalty”. I see no biblical justification for this equation.

Re. your statement disavowing the logic of Christ dying instead of us if indeed we die with Him, I would remind that in Greek thinking (which is where we of western thought automatically go) this would seem illogical. However, by Hebrew thinking which is where most Bible writers come from, two truths in tension with each other pose no problem. However, just because a point can pass the logic test does not therefore make it correct.

On Peters third point, the fact of his acknowledgement that different scholars have viewpoints that coincide with both points of view, should allow for discussion of each, while realizing that they are only opinions that need other information for validation.

On Peter’s fourth point, I don’t see where the term “exclusively” fits. Neither do I see a problem with one who believes sin as primarily a legal matter, even though I don’t, as also seeing it as something that enslaves. To say that a “debt” is a legal issue begs clarification. A person can well owe a debt that has nothing to do with either finances or law. (Ro.13:8) The issue, rather, is the nature of sin. Is sin a condition or a legal problem?

On Peters fifth point, to use 2Cor 5 21 as an example of the substitutionary role of Christ is highly interpretive. The statement of this text is that Christ “became sin on behalf (huper) of us”, not “instead” of us, so we might become (ginometha) the rightousness of God. The healing model would read this “He became sin on behalf of us so that we might be reborn in the image of God”. Paul’s statement that “through the disobedience of one man, many were made sinners” (Ro.5:19) fits perfectly with the model of sin as a condition, because as we now know, how one thinks and acts affects the gene expression that is passed on. Rom.5:12-14 also seems to make this point: “12 Wherefore, as by one man sin entered into the world, and death by sin; and so death passed upon all men, for that all have sinned:13 (For until the law sin was in the world: but sin is not imputed when there is no law)14 Nevertheless death reigned from Adam to Moses”.

At 8:46 PM, Anonymous Wes Gerrans said...


What Peter says about “fitness” is I believe very important. God doesn’t punish the innocent for the benefit of the guilty. (Ez.18:20) “Without the notion of "fitness" that's unique to retributive justice, there's nothing wrong with giving a shut-in a speeding ticket for your fast driving so long as it deters others from doing speeding (deterrent) or so long as it brings about repentance in those who got away with such speeding (restorative).” However I would argue that this “fitness” is not unique to retributive justice. Again it fits the model of sin as a condition perfectly. You would not give Penicillin, for instance, to someone who was not sick. When God does what is just (right) the solution fits the problem.

On Peter’s sixth point, I would ask what do you mean by the statement ”Saying that God must forgive sin justly by punishing it (as I do) is not the same as saying that God "demands hurt."? Is this a statement re. sin or sinners? If sin is meant, how is punishment administered and why? If sinners are the topic, am I to assume that God must punish somebody when a sin is committed, either the person sinning or Christ? If the second is correct, the statement doesn’t seem to fit the standard of “fitness” discussed above. The various words used biblically for punishment are applied to God’s dealing with people but are not used in relationship to Christ’s sacrifice on the cross. The same is true for the words "wrath" and "vengeance". We have a situation at the end of time when the last enemy, or death, is destroyed along with sin and those that cling to it. 1Cor.15:26: Matt.10:28-31. There is no doubt that God does punish sin and therefore those who cling to it at the final judgment. I suppose this could be called retributive justice, but I really don’t see retribution at play in this context. I agree with Peter’s assessment that “My love for my enemies is freed to soar to unbounded heights, not because I can't wait to see them "get theirs", but because I have no reason to doubt that the judge of all the earth will do right--whether in their repentance or their judgment”. What I would disagree with is the sentence that immediately precedes this statement, namely “So, when I love my enemies, I long for God to save them and to take their sin (and thus them) seriously by absorbing the rightful punishment for it himself” Why are we so opposed to the concept that sin itself is destructive, that God’s mission is to “seek and save that which was lost”, that Mary was told to name our Lord “Jesus” because he would save His people from their sins. (Lu.19:10; Matt.1:21) I see nothing cheap or sentimental in the cost heaven paid when Christ came to earth, and I do not have to believe that God was punishing Him in order to be just. What text is given for that thesis?

On the issue of Sin, my study has led me to believe that sin (singular) is a condition that exists as a result of separation from God. Sins (plural) are the symptoms of the condition, hence include crimes, diseases and idolatry.

In his second post Peter’s use of Ro.12:19 is highly interpretive. What does it mean when saying that “God will repay”? Is He getting even with our enemy for us? Or could it mean that He will repay to us whatever was taken? Or that He will do what is right by His standard? As pointed out in Isa.55:8, God’s thoughts are different than ours. In Matt.5:43-48 Christ tells us to be like God who sends his rain to the just and unjust – to love our enemies. Also God has predestined us to be conformed to the image of His Son, Rom.8:29, who is “the express image” of himself. Heb.1:3 Unfortunately 1Pet.2:23 doesn’t necessarily make Peter’s point either since the word translated “justly” can equally well be translated “rightly”. Neither can it be over looked that God’s judgment is given in favor of His saints. Dan.7:22.

At 9:24 PM, Anonymous Derek said...

Hi Wes,

A long post, but a good one!

I like the way you are thinking through all of this. I think you will enjoy the book, and look forward to hearing your thoughts about it.


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