Barth’s understanding of the nature of justification is easy enough to understand—it is nothing more than God’s pardon of man based on Christ’s substituionary work on his behalf. However, to grasp the unique complexity and idiosyncrasy of his doctrine of justification, one must first understand the broader soteriological context seen in Barth’s doctrine of election. Barth’s soteriology holds much in common with typical Christian theologies in key respects. For example, for Barth, the climax of human history is the Christ event—the incarnation, substitutionary death, burial and resurrection of Christ. This event is both the execution and the revelation of the eternal sentence of God on all mankind in which God establishes his right over against man’s wrong. However, whereas the early church and Reformation eras largely understood election and reprobation as dividing humanity into two separate groups of people, the reprobate who are eternally damned and the elect who are eternally saved, Barth reduces the sum total of all elect and all reprobate members down to one person: Jesus Christ. From all eternity, Christ is both the only one who elects and the only one who is elected; he is also the only one chosen for the full measure of the wrath of God against sin and yet, at the same time, he is the only one elected for eternal salvation. Whatever blessings of election and horrors of reprobation apply to men and women in general, then, must be understood only as derivative in this sense: in this same twofold eternal sentence of God, Christ’s history becomes our own from all eternity. It is in light of the temporal execution of the divine eternal sentence of Christ as the elect and reprobate one that man’s own justification can be seen like a shadow behind the Christ event.
Pardon—by God and therefore unconditionally pronounced and unconditionally valid—that is man’s justification. In the judgment of God, according to His election and rejection, there is made in the midst of time, and as the central event of all human history, referring to all the men who live both before and after, a decision, a divisive sentence. Its result—expressed in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ—is the pardon of man. And this as such is man’s justification, this alone, but with unconditional truth and efficacy, so that apart from it there is no justification, but in it there is the total justification of man. Whether man hears it, whether he accepts it and lives as one who is pardoned is another question.
Pardon, then, is not conditional upon one’s response to the Christ event (i.e. faith). Rather, total pardon is objectively accomplished in Jesus Christ on behalf of man. But this rendering of the doctrine of justification does not mean that Barth has no place for the wrath of God in his soteriology. Although pardon, and all that it accomplishes, should be considered the positive aspect of the divine sentence executed in God’s judgment, the negative aspect of this sentence must always be kept in view, for the two belong together since the one (“the divine election of rejected man”) implies the other (“the divine rejection of the elected man”). The positive side of this sentence is “goodness, mercy and grace; His decision and pronouncement in man’s favour,” and this is “the work of his redemption.” The negative side of the sentence is God’s judgment “that we are these proud creatures, that I am the man of sin, and that this man of sin and therefore I myself am nailed to the cross and crucified (in the power of the sacrifice and obedience of Jesus Christ in my place), that I am therefore destroyed and replaced, that as the one who has turned to nothingness I am done away in the death of Jesus Christ.”
In God’s eternal counsel the election of rejected man did not take place without the rejection of elected man: the election of Jesus Christ as our Head and Representative, and therefore our election as those who are represented by Him. Therefore the positive sense of the sentence executed in that judgment belongs together with the negative. If Jesus the Crucified lives, and we live in Him and with Him, the sentence of God revealed in His resurrection is valid in Him and therefore us, in that negative sense. Therefore the knowledge of the grace of God and the comfort which flows from it in this sentence, the knowledge therefore, of its positive sense, is bound up with the fact that in it we do not cease to see ourselves as those who are condemned.
In Christ man is not merely pardoned; he is also condemned and destroyed. Barth therefore often refers to this divine sentence as including both the Yes and the No of God. Furthermore, even though both aspects of this sentence apply only to Christ, since Christ was “in our place” on our behalf they also apply derivatively for all mankind. The scope of Christ’s substitutionary work is universal.
There is not one for whose sin and death He did not die, whose sin and death He did not remove and obliterate on the cross, for whom He did not positively do the right, whose right He has not established. There is not one to whom this was not addressed as his justification in His resurrection from the dead. There is not one whose man He is not, who is not justified in Him. There is not one who is justified in any other way than in Him—because it is in Him and only in Him that an end, a bonfire, is made of man’s sin and death, … Again, there is not one who is not adequately and perfectly and finally justified in Him. There is not one whose sin is not forgiven sin in Him. … There is not one whose peace with God has not been made and does not continue in Him. [italics mine]
Although it might sound impossible that either Christ or (derivatively) mankind could be at the same time and in the same senses elect and reprobate, enjoying both the utmost blessings of grace and utmost furies of wrath, Barth understands God’s wrath as a subset of his grace in such a way that the two notions are not contradictory. Indeed, in the end, the Yes of God is louder than the No of God, for the No of God is only part of the “transition” of man to the Yes of God. On the one hand, “the righteousness of God means God’s negating and overcoming and taking away and destroying wrong and man as the doer of it.” On the other hand, because Barth understands the destruction of man taking place in Christ, it does not follow that all of sinful mankind must be eternally damned, for he does not understand this divine retribution the way classical Christian theologies comprehend it.
Do we not have to say that even in the non-willing, the wrath of God expressed in this conflict, even in the terrible “Away with thee” which is pronounced upon the wrong of man and therefore upon man as the doer of it, what rules finally and properly is grace, the divine Yes deeply buried under the divine No, in so far as God’s free address to man is operative even in the No? … [E]ven in the judgment which comes upon man and his wrong God is gracious to man. The crisis which comes upon man when he encounters the righteousness of God, but in which the grace of God is secretly present and operative, is frequently described in the Bible as chastisement.
Two things are important to note about how Barth understands God’s destroying wrath. First, it only applies to mankind in general inasmuch as Christ’s history (in which he bore the fury of God’s wrath in our place) becomes our own by the unconditional sentence of God. This understanding of God’s wrath might be called the imputation of Christ’s damnation to the sinner. Christ’s destruction, as representing mankind, is our destruction. For Barth, Christ’s death is the most revealing display of just how serious God’s hatred of sin actually is. Second, as we have noted, God’s wrath is not what “rules finally and properly,” but it is a means to a greater end—that of God’s grace. Even in God’s wrath his grace is “secretly present” like the chastisement of a loving father. Wrath is a form of grace that sustains fellowship with man. Although the reasoning of Barth is unclear in the matter, he is convinced that if the wrath of God was given full exercise to any given individual without the grace of God as its ultimate end, God would not be truly righteous.
To put it in another way, on the left hand man is the one who because of His wrong is condemned and rejected and abandoned by God, and on the right hand he is the same man as the one who even in his condemnation and rejection and abandonment is still pardoned and maintained by God, being kept for the fulfillment of His will and plan. … And God is righteous in this distinction as such: for satisfaction would not be done to His right if He could only chide on the left hand or only pardon on the right, if He accepted the identification of man with wrong, and was content simply to banish from the world both wrong and the wrongdoer, or if in spite of the wrong which man has done and his identification with it he allowed him to live at the price of not destroying the wrong which man has committed, of recognizing de facto its right to exist. The righteousness of God would not be God’s righteousness and therefore it would not be true righteousness if it did not proceed on both sides.
Since “even that which God does on the left hand is grace,” wrath must be considered penultimate at most, otherwise the very righteousness of God would be in question.
Barth is not content to think of justified man as living a dual existence of two mutually exclusive influences—one of sin and one of grace-wrought obedience, for “how then can both be real? … This state of dualism, this static co-existence of two quite different men, can only be the result of a misunderstanding.” Barth proposes an alternative (which he thinks is the only alternative): rather than understanding man as a mix between the former man and the new man, justified man in the present must be understood as wholly both, but in the future only the latter. “I was and still am the former man: man as wrongdoer … but I am already and will be the latter man: the man whom God has elected and created for himself … the man who is not unrighteous but righteous before God.” The conviction that apparently underlies Barth’s insistence that we must never understand justified man to have a dual existence is that “the justification of man by God is an event between God and man, not the static relationship of their being.” Rather than elucidating what he means by this denial of dual existence, however, Barth’s explanation only seems to further obscure his intentions (at least to this author):
The justification of man by God belongs neither to the empirical nor to the ideal world, for God who is at work in it is one God and the Creator of all the visible and invisible reality distinct from Himself which is beyond this contrast. … Again, the justification of man … [is] the being of God and man in a definite movement which cannot be reproduced in two pictures which can be placed alongside and studied together. … As this history the justification of man is a genuine puzzle, unlike that of the dualism which can be caught in that picture. The justification of man cannot be caught in any picture, not even in moving pictures. The reason for this is that the man who lives in this history of God with him is not in any sense perceptible to himself. … [W]e cannot put this too strongly—there can be no self-experience of this drama. The fact that it is our history which is in train, that we participate in this drama, is something which must be true and actual quite otherwise than in some depth of our own self, and recognizable as the truth quite otherwise than in the contemplation of one of the phenomena which meet us in these depths.
Is Barth saying that justification does not happen to man but only for him? Is he saying that the objective reality of justification is never actually subjectively experienced? Does this quotation mean that man never perceives Christ’s history as his own in the depths of his own self? Answers to these questions do not seem obvious. What is obvious, however, is that by considering Christ as the only true elect and reprobate one, Barth has abandoned the traditional framework of both doctrines (election and reprobation) and argues for a highly eccentric view as the alternative.
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