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Justification, for Barth, is unconditional divine pardon. Because Barth’s doctrine of election reduced the total number of both all elect and reprobate persons down to one, Jesus Christ, the God-man is really the only one who is justified as well as condemned. Because Jesus Christ as the elect and reprobate one represents all of humanity, however, Christ’s history becomes the history of all people. In this way only are all people also derivatively both elect and reprobate. However, because God’s No in reprobation is ultimately just a subcategory or phase of his Yes in election, which Yes is more ultimate, “there is not one” who is not elect, justified, and ultimately pardoned.
In spite of this apparent universal soteriological framework, Barth denied that he ever taught universal salvation and emphasized that the freedom of God keeps us from presuming that God’s grace will ultimately pardon all. Differences of opinion are held on the question of whether his denial makes his views incoherent, or whether his denial is compatible with his theological position.
Although Barth places importance on the doctrine of justification, he does not believe it is the Word of the gospel per se, for it is one among many aspects of soteriology and should not have a monopoly in soteriologial frameworks. In the end, it is not the articulus stantis et cadentis acclesia. Although Barth emphasizes that faith is not God’s chosen instrument for “realizing” one’s justification because of any virtue that it’s nature entails (such as notitia, assensus or fiducia), he goes futher than the Reformers by denying that one’s justification is in any way dependant on this human response. Justification is realized by faith, not actualized.
Barth’s doctrine of justification has played a prominent role in discussions between Protestants and Catholics about areas of continuity between Protestant and Catholic doctrines of justification. This appropriation of Barth is largely due to the work of the Swiss theologian Hans Küng. Discussion surrounding Protestant and Catholic views of justification that were influenced by Küng’s approach to Barth’s doctrine have culminated in some of the most impressive ecumenical achievements this side of the Reformation, although such achievements are not appreciated by all.
Barth’s Christocentrism is a good example of why he finds appreciation among conservative Protestantism, yet his universalism is a good example of why conservative Protestants are also ambivalent toward his system as a whole. His willingness to engage scripture and traditional church dogma makes his writing intriguing to those who take the Bible seriously, yet his highly eccentric formulations make him difficult to understand, leave him vulnerable to the charge of incoherency, and for more conservative evangelicals who hold to classic doctrines of reprobation and hell, hard to believe.