A Taste of Karl Barth as His Best

Karl Barth (pronounced “Bart”) was, without question, one of the most interesting theologians of the 20th century. Certainly he wrote more than many of the rest combined. Originally trained in German liberal theology and higher criticism, he eventually reacted and made a sharp break back towards orthodox Christianity, reasserting the transcendent reality of God over and against the liberals who saw everything as being about human experience and personal “faith.” He didn’t come all the way back to what we modern evangelicals believe (e.g. he never came back to question the results of higher criticism much, resulting in a unique but nonetheless problematic doctrine of Scripture), but he made several excellent contributions even so.

For Barth, Jesus held a powerful place at the center of all theology. Nothing could be taken for granted if it was not robustly controlled and shaped by the reality of Jesus Himself, which led him to significantly revise certain doctrines he inherited from the Reformers he drew from if he did not see them as Christocentric enough, the most notable example being predestination/election. This tendency also led him to reject the idea of natural theology, that we can learn anything useful about God from the study of anything other than His personal, direct revelation (e.g. creation) unless that revelation was first accepted.

Anyway, I think Barth was at his best in two places in particular: his understanding of the relationship between God and man, and his commitment to restrict all revelation first to and through Jesus. Alas, today I only have time to focus on the first of these. I’ll give a bit of explanation and then let Barth speak for himself.

Unlike the liberal theologians he turned against, Barth was committed to the belief that there was a real God outside of and above us, fully free and sovereign, not dependent upon the world. His opponents did not think this way. For them, there might be a real god, or perhaps “god” is just a way of talking about the human experience of faith. If there was a real god, he certainly wasn’t the utterly free, distinct, holy being Barth (and Scripture!) spoke of. Barth strongly opposed this conception and insisted that, in essence, God is God. Yet he also combined this belief with the firm insistence that, using that absolute creative freedom, God had chosen to be love, and to create and enter into covenant relationship with mankind for Himself. In Barth’s view, God is God, yet He has freely chosen not to be God in any other way except as the loving God of man, and has created man to be nothing other than God’s own. God commits and binds Himself to man for all eternity, swearing off any option to be God by Himself alone, our of sheer grace and sheer freedom. Yet, despite His condescension to forever be man’s God, He remains the free sovereign, worthy of all glory and superior to us in every way.

Here are some quotes from his book The Faith of the Church to illustrate my point:

The New Testament knows three kinds of glorification: a glorification of God by man (this Jesus Christ accomplishes), a glorification of man by God, and a glorification of God by God Himself. But the New Testament does not know of any glorification of man by man himself. Man may glorify only God and not himself, whereas God glorifies Himself and glorifies man…Man’s glory is like making a big noise, like trying to show off himself greater than he is. God does not need to make any fuss about his glory: God is glorious. He simply needs to show Himself as He is, He simply needs to reveal Himself. That is what He does in man, His creature, in whom He wants to be reflected.

pp. 26-27

We must stress—even if it seems “dangerous”—that the glory of God and the glory of man, although different, actually coincide. There is no other glory of God (this is a free decision of His will) than that which comes about in man’s existence. And there is no other glory of man than that which he may and can have in glorifying God. Likewise, God’s beatitude coincides with man’s happiness. Man’s happiness is to make God’s beatitude appear in his life, and God’s beatitude consists in giving Himself to man in the form of human happiness. In this relationship between God’s glory and man’s glory, God’s beatitude and man’s happiness, we must note that God always has precedence: our glory is founded upon His glory; our happiness is founded upon His. God remains ever independent, master and sovereign. Man is only a servant. God gives, man receives…God then is essentially love and grace…God does not exist without this will to encounter us, to make us live and participate in Him. That is His steadfastness.

pg. 31

And finally, a glimpse of the other point I was saying Barth is good about, combined with this one:

Apart from the relation between God and man such as exists in Jesus Christ, all that we said would be equivocal and dangerous and even false. What was said about the relations between divine and beatitude and human happiness, between the glory of God and the glory of man is then an abstract truth: it is the explanation of the basic theses of Christian theology. What we say concerning the relationship of God and man, we say it in Jesus Christ. It is first in Christ that there is a coincidence of divine glory and human glory. It is in him that the encounter between divine beatitude and human happiness takes place. There is no humanity “in relation to God” that was not first realized and prefigured in “Jesus Christ”…In order to fulfill the true humanism, then we must believe in Jesus Christ. There is no humanism without the Gospel.

A Taste of Karl Barth as His Best

Glimpses: Joseph and Jesus Say “Fear Not”

[“Glimpses: Seeing Christ before Christ” is an ongoing series consisting of brief reflections on places in the Old Testament that the light of Christ can be seen.]

Today I was reading Genesis 50:15-26 and I noticed something exciting. At the conclusion of the long struggle of Joseph’s story, his brothers come before him in fear, barely hoping on the basis of a made-up fatherly deathbed request to be spared for their sins. But what happens is probably not what they expect. Verses 18-21:

Then his brothers also came to him, bowed down before him, and said, “We are your slaves!”
But Joseph said to them, “Don’t be afraid. Am I in the place of God? You planned evil against me; God planned it for good to bring about the present result — the survival of many people. Therefore don’t be afraid. I will take care of you and your little ones.” And he comforted them and spoke kindly to them. 

It’s a lovely ending showcasing the triumph of mercy, and I realized that this resonates deeply with the New Testament as well. Joseph is often noted to be a type of Christ, and it is hard to find a place that is more poetic than here. This passage could just as well be rewritten about our approach to Jesus. We come to Him, the risen and enthroned Lord of the universe, the Lion of Judah who judges and makes war, realizing that “it was my sin that held Him there” on the Cross. Should we not expect wrath and fury? Yet He responds otherwise:

“Do not be afraid. I am the in the place of God. Though you did evil against Me, God planned it for good to bring about the present result — the salvation of many people. Therefore don’t be afraid. I will take care of you and your little ones.”

Amen. We’re no better than Joseph’s brothers, but the Greater Joseph is even more gracious. So the thought for today: how ought we to live in view of such mercy?

Glimpses: Joseph and Jesus Say “Fear Not”

Ascension Day: What Did Jesus Going to Heaven Do for Us?

The life of Jesus: Jesus was born of a virgin. He lived the perfectly obedient human life. He died an atoning death. He rose victoriously from the grave. The end.

Okay, that’s not the whole story. There is a part I left out. Did you spot it? After He rose again, Jesus spent 40 days appearing on and off to the apostles, and finally He ascended into heaven. This event, simply enough, is called the Ascension. Given that today is 40 days since Easter, I thought it would be appropriate to say a little something in memory of this event.

The Ascension usually receives little attention, and I do not think this is fair. People view it as the happy ending. It’s the part of the story we need to get the resurrected Christ out of the picture and explain why He isn’t still around. But indeed, there is more to it than that, and this has been woefully ignored. So here’s a quick summary of two things the Ascension does for us:

  • The Ascension secures our salvation by establishing Jesus’ eternal role as High Priest. Hebrews mentions early on how after Jesus performed His atoning work He passed through the heavens and sat down at the right hand of the Father. And what does He do there? He brings sanctified humanity into the presence of God so that man and God can experience the reconciliation He won. For the Scripture says, “We have a great High Priest who has gone into the very presence of God—Jesus, the Son of God.” Because of this, it then says, “Let us have confidence, then, and approach God’s throne, where there is grace. There we will receive mercy and find grace to help us just when we need it.” As a human representative, Jesus is our priest in heaven before the Father.

    So we who have found safety with him are greatly encouraged to hold firmly to the hope placed before us. We have this hope as an anchor for our lives. It is safe and sure, and goes through the curtain of the heavenly temple into the inner sanctuary. On our behalf Jesus has gone in there before us and has become a high priest forever, in the priestly order of Melchizedek.

    Hebrews 6:18b-20

  • The Ascension made time for people of every tribe, tongue, and nation to be saved. What would Jesus have done if He had not left? Wouldn’t He simply keep on with His task, and get straight to judging the world? After all, Jesus did not rebuke His disciples for thinking He would restore the kingdom to Israel, only that He was doing it right then. The Old Testament didn’t even prophesy about separate comings; it treated Jesus’ first and second comings as a single event. But by ascending, Jesus has created time for evangelism. If the end had come then, only a handful of people would be saved. But God wanted to give everyone time to come to the knowledge of the truth through the preaching of the Gospel. Not until every people has heard will Jesus return to finish what He started (Matt. 24:14).

    First of all, you must understand that in the last days some people will appear whose lives are controlled by their own lusts. They will make fun of you and will ask, “He promised to come, didn’t he? Where is he? Our ancestors have already died, but everything is still the same as it was since the creation of the world!”…But do not forget one thing, my dear friends! There is no difference in the Lord’s sight between one day and a thousand years; to him the two are the same. The Lord is not slow to do what he has promised, as some think. Instead, he is patient with you, because he does not want anyone to be destroyed, but wants all to turn away from their sins.

    2 Peter 3:3-4, 8-9

Thinking of these things, let us thank God that Jesus did not only live for us, die for us, and rise for us, but also ascended for us! Amen.

Ascension Day: What Did Jesus Going to Heaven Do for Us?

Grace > Wrath, Or “Mercy Triumphs Over Judgment”

Mercy triumphs over judgment.

James 2:13b

See that verse? It says something quite beautiful. Mercy triumphs over judgment. And is this not just what we need? If judgment triumphed over mercy, we would all be doomed, for instead of Christ on the Cross for us we would ourselves all suffer God’s wrath.

Yet there is a thought out there, and a someone popular one among conservative evangelicals like myself, that God’s mercy and His judgment are equals, that His wrath defines Him as much as His love. And the reason for this emphasis is certainly understandable. Theological liberalism and progressivism both act as though God’s “No” were non-existent or at least negligible in the grand scheme, so proper theology ought to resist such a temptation. But we must not respond with error in the other direction, unbiblically making grace and condemnation equal in God. For this is not what He has revealed to us in the Scriptures and in the life of His Son.

Some of you will be suspicious on this point, so I will seek to demonstrate it will a few Biblical proofs. Let it be known that God defines Himself more with love than wrath, and deals more fully in grace than in judgment. The first proof I put forward is the Old Testament judgment texts. Time after time in the OT, especially in the prophets, God warns of frightening and severe judgment. But what follows? Nearly never is that the last word. Almost every single terrifying warning is followed up by the promise of future grace. A small sample includes the entire book of Amos and its conclusion in 9:11-15, the curses of the Law in Deut. 29 and their conclusion in 30:1-10, the book of Joel and its conclusion in 3:16-21, and large portions of Isaiah. The theme repeats, woven throughout all God’s dealings with Israel: you have sinned, you will be severely and brutally punished, but you will always be restored.

Another proof comes from God’s own nature. We know that love is necessary to who and what God is, for John tells us, “God is love” (1 Jn. 4:8, 16). Yet we are not told likewise that “God is wrath” or “God is judgment.” For how could this be? While God has always eternally loved and been loved in His inner Triune life, as the Father loves the Son and the Son loves the Father, God’s wrath only exists as a response to sin. Wrath and judgment are not eternal characteristics of God’s life, but historical realities created in response to earthly sin. To speak a bit more technically, God’s love is necessary (i.e. He would not be God without it), but His wrath is contingent (i.e. it only exists in response to something else). God has always loved and will always love, but judgment came only after sin came and will end after sin ends.

Finally, I point to the order of God’s interactions with us humans. Which does God want for all people, grace or judgment? I’ll give you a hint: check 2 Peter 3:9. What does He take no pleasure in? The death of the wicked (Ezek. 18:23), which brings them to judgment. And which of His activities, mercy or punishment, does He require that each of us emulate every day? Jesus’ own words seem clear on that matter. Above all of this, which side does He use to fulfill the other in the life of His beloved Son? Did He have mercy on His Son to make sure we were all condemned, or did He send His Son into death and wrath so that we could all be saved? The Cross here makes the answer obvious.

Hopefully, then, it is clear. God has a preference to love, grace, and mercy over wrath, judgment, and condemnation. They are not equal aspects of how our Father in heaven relates to the people He has made. Grace beats condemnation, love overwhelms wrath, and mercy triumphs over judgment. This is what God has told us out of His abundant kindness towards us. So let us celebrate what the Father does for us through His Son, that we should experience such love!

The Lord says to his people,

“Your wounds are incurable,
your injuries cannot be healed.
There is no one to take care of you,
no remedy for your sores,
no hope of healing for you.
All your lovers have forgotten you;
they no longer care about you.
I have attacked you like an enemy;
your punishment has been harsh
because your sins are many
and your wickedness is great.
Complain no more about your injuries;
there is no cure for you.
I punished you like this
because your sins are many
and your wickedness is great.
But now, all who devour you will be devoured,
and all your enemies will be taken away as prisoners.
All who oppress you will be oppressed,
and all who plunder you will be plundered.
I will make you well again;
I will heal your wounds,
though your enemies say,
‘Zion is an outcast;
no one cares about her.’
I, the Lord, have spoken.”

The Lord says,

“I will restore my people to their land
and have mercy on every family;
Jerusalem will be rebuilt,
and its palace restored.
The people who live there will sing praise;
they will shout for joy.
By my blessing they will increase in numbers;
my blessing will bring them honor.
I will restore the nation’s ancient power
and establish it firmly again;
I will punish all who oppress them.
Their ruler will come from their own nation,
their prince from their own people.
He will approach me when I invite him,
for who would dare come uninvited?
They will be my people,
and I will be their God.
I, the Lord, have spoken.”

Jeremiah 30:12-22

Grace > Wrath, Or “Mercy Triumphs Over Judgment”

Utter Forgiveness: To Shatter the Guilt of Life before Christ

Some people, like myself, had a short and boring life before Christ. Most of the testimony comes after conversion. You, though, may be of those who have a painful and shameful past. To be honest, people like me tend to envy people like you. But that’s insane. That can be a burden. So this is my attempt to encourage you.

And although you were dead in your transgressions and sins, in which you formerly lived according to this world’s present path, according to the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the ruler of the spirit that is now energizing the sons of disobedience, among whom all of us also formerly lived out our lives in the cravings of our flesh, indulging the desires of the flesh and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath even as the rest… But God, being rich in mercy, because of his great love with which he loved us, even though we were dead in transgressions, made us alive together with Christ – by grace you are saved! – and he raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, to demonstrate in the coming ages the surpassing wealth of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you are saved through faith, and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God; it is not from works, so that no one can boast. For we are his workmanship, having been created in Christ Jesus for good works that God prepared beforehand so we may do them.

Ephesians 2:1-10

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Utter Forgiveness: To Shatter the Guilt of Life before Christ