The Danger of a Respectable Gospel: Karl Barth on the Greatest Threat to the Preaching of the Cross (Reformission Monday)

Many are the obstacles that we as a church face when we obey Christ’s commission to be his witnesses to the ends of the earth. Depending on where we are and those with whom we speak, we may encounter opposition, resistance, indifference, derision, apathy, ridicule, hardheartedness, persecution, or even violence, just to name a few. To be sure, all of these are significant difficulties and each poses its own unique challenges, but there is one that seems, at least to me, to be far more insidious and, in some ways, much more dangerous. This is what Karl Barth sought to bring to light when he spoke of the perennial risk to turn the scandal of the cross into a “respectable” gospel, a safe and domesticated message that does not judge as it saves, that does not convict as it comforts, that does not wound as it heals, that does not kill as it makes alive. As Barth explains, the reason why this respectable gospel is so deadly is because it can be accepted and affirmed while being, in reality, rejected and denied. The greatest danger to the gospel is that we would make it less dangerous. Barth writes:

When the Gospel is offered to man, and he stretches out his hand to receive it and takes it into his hand, an acute danger arises which is greater than the danger that he may not understand it and angrily reject it. The danger is that he may accept it peacefully and at once make himself its lord and possessor, thus rendering it innocuous, making that which chooses him something which he himself has chosen,Wuppertal, Evangelische Gesellschaft, Jahrestagung which therefore comes to stand as such alongside all the other things that he can also choose, and therefore control. What is all open unbelief, and how hopeful it seems, compared with a “victory of faith” in which man has really conquered faith by being a believer along with all the other things he is, by making even the Gospel into a means of his self-preservation and self-defence!

We can make only a brief reference to the abundance of religious, moral, political, philosophical and scientific forms in which this can take place. The important thing is that wherever the Gospel is proclaimed, both in Church extension on the mission field and in the existing Church, it is exposed at once to the danger of respectability. Indeed, the danger has already been incurred, for as far as can be seen it does always succumb to this process of domestication. And the real hero in the process is always the man who maintains a typical respectability by intending to hold his own against grace, but knowing that the best way to do it is not to contradict its proclamation but to put himself into an orderly relation with it, not to deny but to affirm it—yet circumspectly and in such a way that he reserves his rights over against it, so that it cannot become dangerous to him.[1]

The temptation to make the gospel respectable by assimilating it into the life and mind of the natural man has existed since the time in which Paul rebuked the Galatian churches for “turning to a different gospel” that in truth was no gospel at all (Gal. 1:6)! Paul argued that those who were leading the Galatian believers astray “want to make a good showing in the flesh…and only in order that they may not be persecuted for the cross of Christ” (6:12). Paul was keenly aware that the “word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing” (1 Cor. 1:18), leading many to “practice cunning or to tamper with God’s word” (2 Cor. 4:2) in order to blunt its sharp edges.

But Paul would have none of this: “what we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your [slaves] for Jesus’ sake” (2 Cor. 4:5). The gospel summons us to nothing less than utter submission to the lordship of Jesus Christ and enslaves us to the cruciformity of his will and ways. Yet it is precisely this that rebellious human nature cannot abide, and its natural instinct will be to kick against the goads in the struggle to assert itself as its own master and savior. Certainly human beings in their natural state of enmity against God will accept a gospel that proclaims a Jesus that makes them the lord!

If, as a result of this, we attempt to be “sensitive” or “tolerant” (or whatever else the case may be) and present the cross in a way that can be accepted without scandal or offense, it is likely that this more “respectable” gospel is in truth no gospel at all. A gospel that can be affirmed apart from the absolute demands that it makes upon its hearers — to deny oneself, take up the cross, and follow Jesus no matter the cost — does nothing but affirm sinful human beings in their sinfulness, making their latter state worse than before.

Barth’s words are therefore a sobering and salutary reminder to all of us engaged in the work of missions and evangelism: the greatest danger to the gospel is that we would make the gospel less dangerous.

Let us never forget, the gospel is not respectable.

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[1] Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics II/2. (London; New York: T&T Clark, 2004), p.141.

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2 Responses to The Danger of a Respectable Gospel: Karl Barth on the Greatest Threat to the Preaching of the Cross (Reformission Monday)

  1. Steven says:

    Thought I’d check in from my Word Press hiatus. Have you ever read a book entitled, “Imaginary Jesus” by Matt Mikalatos? This subject reminds me of that [funny] book, how we tend to construct our own versions of Jesus (or Gospel) for a safe domestic version that doesn’t break or hurt us, or one that serves a self-serving purpose like nationalism. I agree very much with Mr. Barth on this matter, and I would just add my own thought that in some way, the Christian life is one of continually knocking down our illusory constructs of who Jesus is, and what the message of the Gospel is, in a continual search for the authentic version which we will finally see one day in full glory, unobstructed by our false narratives and the blindness which currently hinders us.

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    • Hi Steven, no I have not read that book, but it is true that our natural bent is to create a Jesus in our own image rather than repentantly being conformed to his image. Your observation on the Christian life is spot-on: it is a continual struggle to let Jesus be Jesus!

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