Not By Bread Alone: Karl Barth on the Word of God as the Divine Determination of All Humanity

Sometimes when presenting the gospel, it is all too easy to speak as though an act of faith or an existential decision play some sort of determinative role in altering the reality of the individuals in question. Appeals are made to “make” or “accept Jesus as personal Lord and Savior”, as though our acceptance of Christ could create a new situation that did not previously exist, as though Christ were not already our Lord and Savior, whether we acknowledge him or not! Now I realize that there is a kernel of truth here, for there is a fundamental change that occurs in the conversion of sinners under the preaching of the gospel, but overall this kind of approach fails in that it comes across more as suggestion than declaration, more as counsel than command. As Pope Francis recently stated (full text here):

The Word of God cannot be given as a proposal – ‘well, if you like it…’ – or like good philosophical or moral idea – ‘well, you can live this way…’ No! It’s something else. It needs to be proposed with this frankness, with this force, so that the Word penetrates, as Paul says, ‘to the bone.’ The Word of God must be proclaimed with this frankness, with this force… with courage… you will say, yes, something interesting, something moral, something that will do you good, a good philanthropy, but this is not the Word of God.

How very true. The gospel is not a proposal, not a good idea, not self-help advice or a “try it and if you don’t like it then return it for a full refund” bargain. Rather, it is the declaration of what is already true of all people, regardless of whether they realize it or not. It is then a command to submit this new reality as the already-determined basis of human life under the sovereign lordship of Jesus Christ. When Paul preached to the Athenians in Acts 17:30-31, he did not offer them Jesus Christ as simply a better option among the pantheon of their other gods; rather he solemnly asserted:

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.

According to Paul, the advent of Jesus Christ has set all of reality on an entirely new basis. In Christ, a whole new order – a new creation, a new kingdom – have come into being, and this is something which has irrevocably determined the destiny of every single human being, whether they realize it or not. As Karl Barth explains:

As God’s Word itself is revelation, i.e., a new word for me, so the situation in which it sets me as it is spoken to me is an absolutely new situation which cannot be seen or understood in advance, which cannot be compared with any other, which is grounded in the Word of God and in this alone. It is, of course, a situation of decision. But this barth-lecturing1is not the decision of my own particular resolve and choice (though there is a place for these too). It is a decision of being judged and accepted. And because the particular judgment and acceptance are God’s, it is a decision of my particular reality, of the particular meaning of my resolve and choice.

Just because the Word of God means “God with us,” just because it is the Word of the Lord, of our Creator, Reconciler and Redeemer, it obviously pronounces our judgment to us. In it, it is decided who we are. We are what we are on the basis of this judgment, what we are as its hearers, i.e., we are believers or unbelievers, obedient or disobedient. Previously and per se we are neither the one nor the other. Previously and per se we do not even have the possibility of being either the one or the other. Faith and unbelief, obedience and disobedience, are possible only to the extent that, as our act, they are our particular reply to the judgment of God pronounced to us in His Word.

In faith and obedience my resolve and choice is truly good before God. Whatever else may have to be said about me, I exist in correspondence to God’s Word. I have received and accepted His grace. In unbelief and disobedience my own resolve and choice, whatever else may have to be said about me, is truly bad before God. I exist in contradiction to God’s Word. I have not accepted His grace. Either way it is I—this is really my own supremely responsible decision. But it is not in my decision that it acquires the character of being a good choice on the one hand or a bad one on the other. The implication of this decision of mine taken with my own free will, namely, the step either to the right hand or to the left, the choice to believe and obey or the refusal to do either—this qualification of my decision is the truth within it of the divine decision concerning me.

In speaking to me God has chosen me, as the man I am, to be the man I am. The new quality I acquire through the Word of God is my true and essential quality. I cannot give myself this true and essential quality. Only God can judge me. I am wholly and altogether the man I am in virtue of the divine decision. In virtue of the divine decision I am a believer or an unbeliever in my own decision. In this decision whereby it is decided who I am in my own decision and whereby it is decided what my own decision really means—in this realisation of my reality, this bringing of our works to light (Jn. 3:20f.; Eph. 5:12f.), the Word of God is consummated as the act of God. It is always the act of the inscrutable judgment of God.[1]

Whoever we are, wherever we are, we are what we are because of the Word of God. In Deuteronomy 8:3, Moses reminded the people of Israel that God had allowed them to hunger in order to teach them that “man does not live by bread alone but by every word that comes from the mouth of God”. As Barth helps us to understand, this is not a metaphorical statement, neither is it expressing an existential truth related only to our religious or spiritual experience. At bottom, it is ontological fact: it is by the Word of God that we were created, it is by the Word of God that we are sustained in existence, and it is by the Word of God that we are reconciled and redeemed, and it is by the Word of God that we will be judged. The reality to which this Word attests is the reality of every human being, prior to and independent of any recognition of it.

This is what makes missions and evangelism so desperately urgent: the church must proclaim to every creature under heaven the new reality of the Word of God that undergirds and enfolds their existence and summons them to live in accordance with it. This is also what makes missions and evangelism possible: the church can proclaim to every creature under heaven the new reality of the Word of God because it is already true for them, irrespective of whether or not they accept it or reject it. Certainly, the moment of decision when the Word of God confronts us is massively important, and it will bear decisively on whether we will be judged as obedient or disobedient, as believers or unbelievers, as sheep or goats. But the salient point, as Barth makes clear, is that even before our decision to believe or to disbelieve in the Word of God, that Word has already made a decision regarding us, and it is ultimately on that basis that our eternal existence has been decisively determined, and it is precisely for this reason that we must make known that decision to every human being and call them to respond with their own decision of repentance and faith.

Therefore, let us, with the apostle Paul, boldly proclaim as far and as wide as we can the good news of salvation in Jesus Christ accomplished once for all and for all, confronting all people with the reality to which they are commanded to submit, the reality of God’s judgment of the world in righteousness through the man Jesus Christ, died, resurrected, ascended, and coming again.

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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), pp.161-162.

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This entry was posted in Election, Gospel, Judgment of God, Karl Barth, Kingdom of God, Missiology, Mission & evangelism, Pope Francis, Preaching, Word of God. Bookmark the permalink.

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