The Impossible Possibility: Karl Barth on the Paradoxical Relation between Grace and Unbelief

In talking with someone about my recent post on why a commitment to universal atonement, at least as articulated by T.F. Torrance, does not entail a corresponding commitment to universal salvation, I was reminded of how counterintuitive this seems, especially to those coming from a background in traditional Reformed soteriology. Although not stating it in quite these terms, I explained that far from necessitating universalism, Torrance’s understanding of universal atonement actually necessitates the very opposite! To many, such as the person with whom I was conversing, this statement appears to be highly paradoxical, if not utterly incoherent. It seems that if we affirm universal atonement, then we are either forced to affirm universalism or fall back into a libertarian notion of free will. If we reject both of these options, then, so the reasoning goes, we are left only with the possibility of affirming limited atonement and its corresponding view of limited predestination.

While this post may not clear up all of the confusion, I would like to offer what I hope will be a further clarification of this issue. This time, my point of reference will be Karl Barth who, in the first half volume of his Church Dogmatics writes:

[It is not] faith that puts in effect all that the Word of God tells us. Faith too, and faith especially, is faith in Jesus Christ. It is thus the recognition and confirmation that God’s Word was already in effect even before we believed and quite apart from our believing. Faith particularly—and this is the element of truth in the older Lutheran 6a00d83451cfe769e201310fb8506c970cdoctrine of the [efficacy of the Word apart from its appropriation]—lives by the power which is power before faith and without faith. It lives by the power which gives faith itself its object, and in virtue of this object its very existence.

Baptism was instituted for this reason, as a sign of this true and supreme power of God’s Word. As a real act on man, as an act of sovereign disposition, it proclaims for its part that man belongs to the sphere of Christ’s lordship prior to all his experiences and decisions. Even before he can take up an attitude to God, God has taken up an attitude to him. Whatever attitude he may adopt, it will be done within and on the ground of the attitude that God has adopted to him. If he believes, this will be just a confirmation of the fact that he has God’s promise and is claimed, judged and blessed by God. If he does not believe, this again will not be a possibility he can freely choose. He will sin against God’s Word. He will not show himself to be free, but unfree. He will not choose, but will be rejected. He will grasp, not a possibility, but an impossibility. In a Word, in his very unbelief he will be measured by the Word of God and smitten by its power. The preceding attitude of God to him will make his unbelief unbelief, his sin sin. Only in the sphere of grace is there faith and unbelief, righteousness and sin. Only through the power of God’s Word are there the two categories, those who are saved and those who are lost.[1]

Let me try and unpack Barth’s reasoning. First, Barth asserts that when the Word of God, the gospel of Christ, comes to us whether in written or spoken form, it is not our act of faith that “activates” its power so as to make it true. What the gospel proclaims is true, apart from and prior to our act of faith. As Paul argued in 2 Corinthians 4:3-6, the fact that many people are blind to the light shining in the face of Christ does nothing to detract from that light’s brilliance. Just like the sun, the light of Christ revealed in the gospel shines on us, whether we are able to see it or not. Another way of saying this is that Jesus is, as Peter told Cornelius in Acts 10:36, the Lord of all, whether or not they acknowledge him as such. The fact that not every knee bows and not every tongue confesses that Jesus is Lord in the present does not mean that Jesus is not actually the Lord, even their Lord, the one to whom has been given all power in heaven and on earth.

Now, Barth continues, if the gospel proclaims that Jesus is Lord of all people independent of their awareness or submission to him, then this means that they are implicated in the sovereign decision that God has made concerning the final destination toward which all of human history is directed. That is to say, the decisive event that took place in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ is determinative for all human beings. As Paul preached to the Athenians in Acts 17:30-31:

The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.

The gospel is God’s command that “all people everywhere repent”, a command that, in contrast with the “times of ignorance” characterizing history prior to the coming of Christ, now confronts every human being precisely on account of the death and resurrection of Christ. Leading up to the final judgment, this gospel is a “fragrance from life to life” for those who are saved is the same gospel that is also “a fragrance from death to death” for those who are perishing (2 Cor. 2:15-16). Note well: the destiny of the latter is not determined by a power different from the one that determines the destiny of the former; both result from an encounter with the objective reality of the lordship of Christ which the gospel proclaims to all. Jesus is Lord of all people, and thus the destiny of all people is inextricably bound up with him, whether they acknowledge it or not.

With this understanding in place, Barth moves on to describe the actual moment of decision: what then accounts for the division between those who are saved and those who are perishing? It is not that God has decided positively for some and negatively for the rest, for the gospel’s proclamation of the universal lordship of Christ means that the same decision has been rendered for all: every knee will bow and every tongue will confess in one way or another. Rather, Barth offers an asymmetric account of the point of division between the two groups: those who hear the gospel and believe simply confirm the reality of the decision that God has made concerning them. This is not a “free” choice in the sense that it can ultimately be traced to an autonomous decision on the human side; it is simply what we would normally expect when those who are under God’s decision in Christ are confronted with this fact through the preaching of the gospel.

On the other hand, there is no corresponding explanation for why the rest refuse to acknowledge Christ’s lordship over them. It is a mystery because in Christ God has negated sin, condemning it in the flesh of the one who was made in likeness of sinful flesh (Rom. 8:3). There is no rational, logical explanation for why Christ’s subjects do not subject themselves to him but rather resist and rebel. When this occurs, therefore, their refusal to repent cannot be described as a “free” choice either, in the sense that they have simply chosen between two equal possibilities. Because the gospel comes as a command with the infinite weight of the authority of God, there is only one conceivable option when it confronts us: repent and believe as God has commanded. The “choice” to do the opposite is not truly a possibility that exists on the same level; hence it is asymmetric. Thus when people make this incomprehensible choice, they do not show that they are free but only unfree, enslaved to the sin that has been negated at the cross, having their minds blinded by the god of this world to keep them from seeing the glory of Christ in the gospel (2 Cor. 4:3).

Thus, whether we consider those who are saved or those who are perishing, in neither case do we have a situation in which the determinative factor is either that 1) God has positively decided for the salvation of one group while deciding for the damnation (or at least passing over) the rest, or that 2) the people confronted by the gospel have simply exercised their free will. Rather, both those who are saved and those who are perishing respond, for reasons that cannot be correlated, on the basis of the prior decision of God in Christ. Those who respond in faith have merely done that which corresponds to God’s prior decision for them, whereas those who respond in rebellion have merely done that which a mind blinded and enslaved by the god of this world are capable of doing. Undergirding all of this is the gospel’s proclamation that the destiny of every single human being has been decisively determined in the death and resurrection of Christ, an objective fact that lays upon every human being the necessity to repent and believe. Thus, however paradoxical it may seem, it is the universal scope of that which the gospel proclaims that creates the crisis of decision to which all people are called, giving rise to the “impossible possibility” that many will refuse and thus consign themselves to eternal damnation.

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[1] Karl Barth, Church dogmatics: The doctrine of the Word of God, Part 1. (London; New York: T&T Clark, 2004), p.154.

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2 thoughts on “The Impossible Possibility: Karl Barth on the Paradoxical Relation between Grace and Unbelief

  1. Steven 3 February 2017 / 14:56

    This is a topic that I have struggled greatly with over the past several months. I find myself trying to satisfactorily steer between the two extremes of universalism and Arminian decision theology. If anything, I would personally tend more toward universalism (and have at time skirted awfully close to it), but it’s simply not tenable as a viable option from my point of view, especially if I wish to be faithful to the corpus of teaching in my own tradition. And yet, I think we tend to give this nebulous idea of “human freedom” too much credit often times. I finished another Robert Jenson book and while I found some of his insights to be fascinating, I can’t say that I’m anymore satisfied with this subject matter. I guess though, I’m probably trying to figure out something which is inherently shrouded in mystery, this side of eternity.

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    • Jonathan Kleis 3 February 2017 / 20:13

      It is a struggle Steven, and although I try to give coherent answers, I have to admit, in the end, that the mystery remains and most likely will remain, as you said, this side of eternity. That is one of the reasons why I like Barth’s phrase “impossible possibility”. For some people, this seems horribly non-sensical. For me, it well captures the tension that a faithful rendering of the biblical witness imposes on us. In the end, I find comfort in the fact that we can entrust ourselves to the One who does all things right.

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